The Lightning Storm and the Stone:
Standing Indian Loop on the Appalachian Trail
How a myth, a storm, and friendship can electrify your perspective
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*Note: This is a longform story. You might want to sit down before reading this. Estimated reading time: 30 minutes
A long time ago, in the area where Franklin, NC now sits, local Cherokee told a story of a winged beast that swooped down from the skies and stole children. Heartbroken and desperate, the local villagers sent a warrior to the highest mountain to keep watch for the winged monster and to discover its lair. The warrior found the lair, but it was in a place in the mountains inaccessible to humans, so the Cherokee villagers prayed to the Great Spirit for assistance. The Great Spirit heard their pleas and sent thunder and lightning to destroy the winged monster. The lightning scarred the surrounding mountains but the warrior, afraid for his life, tried to abandon his post. To punish his act of cowardice the Great Spirit sent a bolt of lightning to the mountain summit, leaving a bald and turning the warrior to stone. From that day forward the mountain was called Yunwitsule-nunyi which means "where the man stood."
Today we call it Standing Indian Mountain. The bald is still there, as well as the rock scars on the sides of the nearby mountains, but the rock shaped like a man is crumbling, forgotten to all except those that know to look for it.
I had texted Sherry around New Year's to ask about this backpacking trip. Suffering from bellyaches induced by too many holiday sweets and daydreaming of spring I asked if she might be interested in another adventure. I remembered our adventure last spring: on Easter weekend we had geared up and set off for a weekend on the Appalachian Trail. Spring wildflowers crept at our feet and on Easter morning we watched the sun rise over Hump Mountain as we traversed bald after bald, all the budding mountainous countryside filling our eyes and our hearts.
Adventure! Of course! Who could say no to that? And, Sherry confided, if we did it in March that would be just before she packed up everything she had and moved to Colorado - one last hurrah on the Appalachian Trail before she headed West.
There are dangers to going on adventures though. It may forever change how you see the world and how you see yourself - for better as you grow and step confidently into the capable and strong version of yourself, or for poorer as you stare down what you cannot have or will never be. And sometimes, if you're lucky, you will just barely avoid being struck by lightning.
Standing Indian Loop
"When did we last talk? Everything in my life is completely different now!" Sherry exclaimed as we met a few weeks before our trip to catch up over beers and plan our weekend. "Ryan and I broke up and I'm renting out my house and moving to Colorado!"
I was speechless for a minute. Sherry and Ryan had been together for as long as McCrae and I had been together - 7.5, maybe 8 years. The thought of a relationship like mine ending left me reeling. And then to move to Colorado! But no, Colorado made sense - that sensation of absolute freedom in the mountains, how ruby-gold alpenglow on the peaks can make your heart sing, how now was the perfect time for a new beginning, and how much she'd talked on our last trip about Colorado and her friends there. You can always tell what a person is in love with by how their eyes light up at the topic and how they always want to insert it into the conversation - it's something that's always on their mind and they're happy to dwell on it. Thinking back to that trip last spring with Sherry and the frequency and intensity in which she talked about Colorado, the idea of her moving there one year later was plausible. No, it was more than plausible: it was the only thing that made sense.
So we set a date for one week before she moved cross-country for our backpacking weekend: St. Patrick's Day.
We chose Standing Indian because it's one of the few places on the Appalachian Trail where you can easily do a loop hike. From Deep Gap just north of the NC/GA line to Rock Gap the Appalachian Trail winds east and then north in an oxbow of 20 miles - a distance that Kimsey Creek Trail easily covers in about 6 miles from Deep Gap to Standing Indian Campground at Rock Gap. Twenty-six miles and no shuttle? That was doable, but it was the promise of another night on a bald atop Standing Indian that sold us on the route.
Plus, I reasoned, if we went south then we would most likely see several thru-hikers heading north. The prospect of living vicariously through them as they trekked northwards was appealing: 100 miles into the trail these hikers would have finally adjusted to the idea of the trail as their home just while Sherry was in limbo in terms of her home. And, I joked to Sherry, a section hike on the Appalachian Trail would be her last chance to feel halfway fit before heading off to the land of adventure and keeling over from the elevation change.
And so Sherry and I headed to Rock Gap after work on a Thursday - west, west towards the sun that hung too long over the horizon after newly-effected Daylight Savings. I turned to Sherry and said, "Just think. In a week you'll be driving this road again, heading west for good," and we filled those hours on the road with conversation.
"I asked Ryan to marry me last year and he basically said, 'no,'" Sherry said at one point.
"Wow," I said, and shook my head. "And now you're moving to Colorado?"
"Yeah," Sherry said, "And I tried moving out there earlier too. I actually asked Ryan if he would move to Colorado with me, and he said no. I should have known then."
"Mmm," I demurred.
"Ryan was always the practical one. 'What are you going to do in Colorado, Sherry? How am I going to find a job?' And I'm like, 'you're a smart, capable guy! I'm sure you could find a job!' It's not like he's attached to any job around here. I just wanted us to have a little ambition."
There. That resonated with me for a moment. Ambition. It bounced around in my head: my mother telling me to find a man with ambition. My friends who always worried about their partners not having as much ambition as them. It's an imbalance that we seem to accept and silently resent - an unspoken anger towards our partners for not trying as hard, not wanting as much as us, a sort of resentment that hardens us. It's not something we can articulate to our partners - or maybe we just choose not to say anything - but on girls' nights as we gather over cocktails laden with orange garnishes or on women's weekends at the beach my women friends all immediately understand what we mean. "He just doesn't have much ambition," we say, envious of our partners who receive more in life with less effort, and we desperately wish for that leverage.
"It's basically been like going through a divorce," Sherry acknowledged on the drive somewhere around Morganton as the terrain lifted towards the sky and the sun fell towards the ground. "I mean, Ryan and I had been together for almost seven and a half years. We had a house together, stuff together, dogs and a cat - I mean, it was basically like we were married."
Seven and a half years. That's exactly how long McCrae and I have been together, with a house and a dog and all this mutual stuff. I couldn't imagine the logistics of trying to split it all up. I couldn't imagine the heartbreak. I started tallying our belongings in my head: he might get the bed, I'd get the couch. He'd get the TVs, I'd get the dog. How would we split the house? How would he take the bookshelves while I took the books? I wouldn't even know where to start.
Space and Time and Rock Gap
We slept in Sherry's car Thursday night at Rock Gap in a new Jeep Grand Cherokee that roomily folded down the rear seats for some makeshift sleeping arrangements. I lay awake thinking: it seemed like everything in my friend's life had changed except her job. That struck me as odd. Usually when you hear of someone going through a life change it's a big career change - how they quit their job and went into a new industry, or sold their house and traveled the world, a la Eat Pray Love*. But to shed the relationships, the house, the old car, and to keep the job? I smiled at the thought, at the uniqueness and my friend's bravery, and at the spiral of time.
I had slept in my car at Rock Gap a few years ago when I went on my first solo backpacking trip, hiking north from Rock Gap to Wayah Bald over Memorial Day weekend. Now, three years later, I felt so much more confident on the trail, comfortable in the woods in ways I wouldn't expect. What a difference time - the constant teasing variable - can make in a life.
Three years since my first solo trip. One year since my last trip with Sherry. Back to Rock Gap. Back with Sherry. Adventures swirled in my mind, connecting, separating, reconnecting, like beads of oil in water. As we curled up in the back of Sherry's Jeep to sleep before we set off adventuring those memories of people and places danced through my head like the stars suspended above me through the moon roof, slowly following their heavenly pirouette while outside the car the wind roared.
The Rise and Fall of Albert Mountain
We tackled twelve miles the next morning, past a sign marked with sticks spelling out "100" - one hundred miles on the AT from Springer Mountain to that point. We climbed up Albert Mountain, pausing at the fire tower to admire the view while thru-hikers lounged on the rock, kicked off their shoes, and compared the stench of each other's socks. I took a moment and scampered to the top of the fire tower, thrilled at the heights and marveling at my new bravery. Before I took up climbing I would have never ventured to the top, I would have never raced up the rickety metal stairs, and I would have never leaned over the railing to call down to Sherry, to point my camera towards her as she turned her face up and smiled.
It's amazing what a difference two weeks can make. Last year on Easter weekend Sherry and I were wowed by wildflowers and big balds turning yellow-green, but this year - two weeks earlier over St. Patrick's Day - everything was still brown, brown, brown - the last hold of winter in a thawing landscape.
But also too, what a difference a year can make! Sherry's life had turned upside down. She kept exclaiming, "I can't believe how different everything is now! I keep thinking I'm going to wake up one day and it's all going to hit me, but for now I'm still in shock!"
Finding Space at Carter Gap
At Carter Gap Shelter where we spent the first night it looked like a tent city had sprung up around the shelter. Northbound thru-hiker tents sprawled in every direction for a quarter mile and men in various states of dress and smell spread out their long limbs under tarps, on logs, or on the ground. Suddenly I realized with a jolt how few women there were: besides Sherry and myself I saw one other woman in the whole encampment, and that other woman - with her shaved head and bandanna and grey-colored clothes - seemed to melt into the scene, appearing only occasionally when I caught sight of her neatly laying out her things.
We had plenty of daylight left after setting up camp, cooking dinner, and cleaning up, so Sherry and I experimented with options for throwing a bear bag.
"I usually attach the rope to my carabiner," I said, reaching for the heavy climbing carabiner I keep strapped to my pack.
"Oh, I've got a carabiner!" Sherry said and pulled out a small one. It was a lightweight, almost flimsy thing that might attach to a water bottle or some other accessory for easy clipping to a bag. It certainly didn't have any heft, but I laughed and said, "Ha, I don't think that's heavy enough, but now I'm just curious to see if I can get this to work."
And so it became a game to see if we could get her little carabiner to serve as the weight for the bear bag. The carabiner was too light for what we needed, but it was fun to see its erratic path as we flung it again and again at a distant branch, laughing as it fell far too short of what we were aiming for or giggling as it tangled in a snarl of twigs. I was too intent on trying to make it work that I didn't notice the man staring at us from the trail.
"Have you two ever thrown a bear bag before?" he hollered after once more the carabiner fell short of the branch.
I glanced over at him, at his smug stance, at his wild white hair and weathered features, at the way he folded his arms over his chest and set his feet wide, and I immediately disliked him.
"Yes," I said sharply. "I've successfully thrown a bear bag many many times."
It's none of your business, I wanted to say. Thanks for ruining the fun.
"Well, I just figured I'd come over and offer to do it for you. It was either that or take a video of you girls and post it to YouTube."
You girls. My eyes narrowed to slits. I said nothing, too angry at him to say anything nice. I swapped out Sherry's lightweight carabiner for my heavy one, neatly gathered the rope, and threw the carabiner at the branch. It neatly sailed over the branch and we hoisted the bear bag, our little game over.
The man had disappeared by the time we finished tying off the bear bag, and the sun was fading from long gold shadows to periwinkle.
"I'm going to build a fire," Sherry announced while I tried to let go of my anger, and we claimed a nearby fire ring, pulling logs and branches close. Sherry did it all - I'm not much of a firestarter myself - and soon we had a crackling campfire and fellow hikers were edging close to its circle of warmth.
A man joined us - a section-hiker from Texas who used to be a Scoutmaster before his son decided he was too old for Boy Scouts and too cool to go tromping through the woods with his dad. The man sighed wistfully and told us about the Ozarks where he and some other troop dads would go for a week each year to get away from the world for a short while.
The other woman in the encampment appeared. One moment it was just shadow and one moment she was there. She was young - in college, I think she said, taking a summer off to thru-hike - and when she and Sherry realized the woman was from an area of Colorado near Salida they immediately broke into excited conversation, chatting about this landmark or that bar in the area. The former Scoutmaster next to me smiled amiably. Sherry poked at the fire distractedly, agitating the flames rather than actually stoking them, and the Scoutmaster clearly wanted to jump in and manage the fire for her, but he refrained and I silently thanked him for that.
Sherry had noticed too, and that night when we were curled up in our sleeping bags in the tent like two middle school girls at a sleepover in the strange quiet between sleep and awake, Sherry said, "I know I wasn't doing what's best for the fire every time. I kinda just wanted to play with it. I could tell it bothered the troop master sometimes, but I really appreciated that he just let me do my own thing and didn't jump in and try to correct it."
"Yeah," I said. "Room to play." It's frustrating that the space for us to play can feel so cramped sometimes.
The next morning we slept in a little late. Our hardest day had been that first one, tackling 12 miles on the AT. For day two we just had 6 miles or so to go: our goal the summit of Standing Indian Mountain, the tallest mountain in the area at 5,499 feet. It was a long slow ascent from Carter Gap to Standing Indian and we took a leisurely pace, past burn scars and signs for bear sanctuaries and past haggard-looking thru-hikers until we reached the summit by early afternoon.
The "bald" of Standing Indian is more like my dad's bald spot - a nice clear spot on the crown with plenty of protection around the head. From there I could see the Nantahala Gorge with the river shining bright against the hazy mountains. Up on the bald everything looks like different shades of blue - the Blue Ridge Mountains fading to cloud-speckled sky, the silver of the river, the muddy blue-gray of the rock at the summit. A crow jabbered in the distance and came in sight overhead - wheeling and rising up from the valley, fast, on a thermal. It barrel rolled over the summit, eyeing us with curiosity as it skimmed past. Sherry and I were laid on the grass sunning ourselves - just two women soaking up warm rays atop a mountain we worked hard to earn. The views aren't breathtaking like Hump Mountain last year, but after two days of hiking through the woods they weren't bad. I just hoped the sun would chase away enough clouds to give us a decent sunset.
By late evening the Nantahala River glowed silver, then gold, and then finally red as the sun dipped below the horizon. It wasn't a spectacular sunset by any means - clouds and haze on the horizon obscured what would have been a perfectly framed sunset - but even so I was glad I was there - right there - on top of a mountain, watching the sky fade from red to violet, the river gleaming in the last light as twinkling lights from the town of Franklin lit up in the gorge, spilling down the mountains to the lake.
Sherry had retreated to the tent to seek shelter from the driving wind. It whistled in my ears and nipped at my dirt-encrusted fingers, and occasionally it slapped the pages of my notebook against my hand, which was bruised from throwing the night's bear bag.
"Have you ever thrown a bear bag before?" Sherry had teased me. I rolled my eyes as the heavy climbing carabiner caught on a twig and I pulled hard on the rope. Nothing. Stuck. I gave it another tug and the carabiner came flying at me, hitting hard against the back of my hand with a crack. No matter. The cold effectively iced my hand for me.
These mountains though. Just after sunset, exposed to the wind, I was not even cold as scrub trees and bare heath turned to ominous silhouettes. Ominous? No, that wasn't the right word, not to me - they were just shadows in which I happily dwelled, just me and the black bears. In all the burnt debris from the wildfire along the trail that day I kept imagining the snout, the hump, the shadow of a bear, and to my sweat-streamed eyes these ursine shadows all moved and came alive and I nearly yelled with glee. I always hope to see a bear.
A flash of light snapped me back from my twilight dreams. There was lightning on the horizon. I saw the first flash strike a distant peak just as two hapless kids came up the trail to our encampment on the bald.
"Do you all have a Jetboil stove?" the girl asked me.
"No, why? Did you run out of fuel?"
"No. Well, this is silly, but we can't figure out how to work it."
"Oh." I said. "Well, bring it over. I'll take a look and see if I can figure it out."
The boy hung back and the girl handed over their stove. It was a fairly straightforward stove I saw. Striker. Windscreen. Pot. Fuel valve. Wait, the fuel valve looked strange, as though it had been folded back for storage and then never unfolded for use before they attached the canister.
"Well, there's the problem right there," I said, and unscrewed the canister from the stove, flipped the valve handle, and screwed the canister back on.
"Alright," I said, "It should work now. I'll show you have to use it," and I showed them how to turn the fuel valve, listen for the whistle of gas, and use the striker to light it up.
"There you go, you should be all set," I said. "Just use it on a flat rock or something. We don't need to burn down the whole forest again." They smiled and thanked me and introduced themselves - Kara and Matthew. They looked hardly older than sixteen, but maybe I'm just getting old.
"This is a great spot you got," Kara said admiring the view in the twilight.
"Yeah," I said, "though I'm a little worried about the lightning off in the distance. If it heads this way we might have to move off the bald."
I knew then that we'd have to move as soon as the words came out of my mouth. I worried Sherry about it, but she said we'd wait and see, even though I tore a bit of paper from my notebook and held it up to the wind and watched as the paper flicked back towards my face. The storm would come directly at us. At the very least I hoped it would die down before it got over the two ridges before us.
But I knew it wouldn't.
At around 8:30pm, finally full dark, Sherry asked how it looked outside and I popped my head out of the tent and was silent for a moment.
"I don't think it's dying down," I said as the horizon lit up strobe-like with lightning. "And I think it's coming right at us."
"Either way," Sherry said, "It's going to hit us hard, and I don't think we can avoid it."
"Yeah," I said, "But I'd rather not be the highest thing on a bald mountain with metal tent poles in the middle of a lightning storm."
She thought for another moment, and then she said, "Let's just grab our stuff, we'll pick up the tent, and go down to the next campsite," and I immediately agreed. I had already packed most of my bag in case we needed to make a hasty getaway - camera tucked safely away, water bottles, map, compass, etc. stowed in pockets - so I shoved my journal into my pack along with my sleeping bag and started pulling up tent stakes.
"I think we can leave the pads in the tent. and we'll just carry the whole tent down," Sherry said and I agreed - there was a campsite just below the summit, tucked under some trees where the kids were camped out. We grabbed our gear, turned on our headlamps, picked up the tent at front and back like a litter, and hauled ass down the mountain.
Droplets had just started to fall and the occasional lightning strike on the next mountain temporarily blinded us as we stumbled down the trail. We stepped quickly, eager for cover, but careful not to break an ankle on the scattered boulders. At the campsite the couple was there, looking concerned, and we pitched our tent at the first acceptable spot we found, kicking away some rocks and branches and quickly staking out the tent. We crawled in just as it started to rain in earnest.
Sitting out a lightning storm is harrowing. The air crackles and sizzles - I could smell the electricity. The sound of rain against the tent fly was raucous and almost drowned out the rolls of thunder pealing and clapping just above our heads. It felt as though the rain might slice through these thin tent walls, that the lightning would blaze into our little shelter, that this whole mountain would come crashing down. I worried that it might hail - no, wait, I peeked outside and the ground was already thick with hail. I worried that the hail might rip through the tent and we'd be left miserable and broken in a true survival horror story. I hoped my tent held up. I hoped the storm passed quickly. I hoped we'd be alright.
Finally it seemed the hail was lessening against the tent - I could hear individual pings against the tent poles and the roar had quieted enough that I could hear a peal of thunder distinctly on the other side of the mountain. I could hear the wind again rather than the nonstop rampage of precipitation and thunder all around - the most intense surround sound I've ever experienced. I popped my head outside and the ground was thick with hail the size of marbles. In the wake of the storm a chill lingered in the air. I exhaled, grateful the storm was over, and my breath came out as a cloud, and I realized we were in for a cold night.
By dawn the hail was gone, but the wind continued to howl, a cold and searching winged breath over the mountain.
It slowly warmed over the day as Sherry and I clamored along the trail, thinking and talking about what's next - on the trail and in our lives. I ran across a friend of mine who's thru-hiking northwards, Katherine, and we both squealed with excitement when we saw each other. I hugged her and asked how the trail was - how was she feeling? How's it going? How far has she been going since I last heard from her? How about that storm last night, right?? She explained that she'd spent the night in her hammock and, in the middle of the storm, had to run out into the hail to recover her tarp as it flapped wildly in the wind.
"Oh wow!" I exclaimed, "that's just insane!" and I recounted our night fleeing from the bald to seek some cover under the trees before we finally hugged again and went our respective ways on the trail.
We arrived at Deep Gap quickly in the morning; the descent from Standing Indian was fairly easy despite the cool morning. I peered at the map and smiled: it would be fairly even elevation from Deep Gap to Rock Gap via Kimsey Creek Trail. There was a crowd at Deep Gap, and a small dog that really liked sniffing my pee rag, so we didn't stay long before we turned onto Kimsey Creek and headed north.
Kimsey Creek Trail is aptly named as the trail runs along various mountain streams that merge and grow into a rushing stream that swells and shrinks over boulders, fallen logs, and river rocks that gleam amber and coal colors under sparkling water. It was spring here - green and lush and unlike the higher elevations. The sun felt warm to my bare arms and spring ephemerals popped up their flowery heads. You could almost hear them springing up - leaves crackled and popped as the dead debris gave way to the revived.
As the trail turned towards Standing Indian Campground the creek deepened and widened. The trail cut along an old creek bed filled with river rocks, and water seeped along the old bed so that we splashed through puddles and rivulets and past a giant cairn the size of a middle school girl. We marveled at it, and kicked up water, and finally left the mountain stream and started trudging up the mile and a half back to our car. It was the longest, hottest hiking we'd done that weekend and at one point I stopped and questioned if I'd led us the right way, but finally - finally - we turned a curve, and we had arrived.
Sherry left for Colorado less than a week later, with her dogs and some friends who flew to NC to help her drive west. I spent the next month struggling with the story - with the plodding length of the post, with all the comparisons of Sherry's life and mine, and with the longing to be back on the trail. For a week my gear dried on the rafters in my house and I still had dirt under my fingernails. There was a massive mysterious bruise on my knee and scrapes on my knuckles. I was both happier and more depressed: the post-hike pining for the trail, for adventure, for the infinite possibilities of my life, for more time.
When I had texted McCrae that we were heading home from the mountains, McCrae had replied, "I'm so glad you're coming home!"
"What? Were you worried I was going to stay on the trail and hike to Maine?" I texted back.
"Yep. Or at least stay until you ran out of food."
I sent laughing emojis back and said, "That's what hitchhiking to town fixes." But I paused, and then texted him, "I wouldn't want to hike to Maine with that tent though. I'd at least come home and get my ultralight tent or hammock. There's no way I'd hike with this ginormous and heavy tent."
"Haha," McCrae responded, "Fair enough."
Fair enough. Fair enough in how we define our house, our home. Fair enough in how I exchange time for stories. How I gamble the odds and hope I never turn to stone.
Get there: Start at Rock Gap or Deep Gap on the Appalachian Trail. Hike northbound (from Deep Gap) or southbound (from Rock Gap) on the AT. Use Kimsey Creek Trail to connect the loop. (Note: It's recommended that you start at Rock Gap and go sobo to Deep Gap. If you do this trip during summer you can park your car and/or stay at Standing Indian Campground and shave off a couple miles of the loop)
Distance: It's about 26 miles to do the loop. (24 miles if you start and end at the campground instead of Rock Gap)
Difficulty: Moderate. Most of the trail is along a ridgeline so the elevation is comparatively gentle for the southern Nantahala mountains. However, the climb up Albert Mountain can be steep - it's downright awful if you approach it going northbound. (Hence one of the reasons I recommend doing this loop southbound on the AT.)
Dog friendly? Yes, if your dog is hardy and handles overnight backpacking well. Please see the special considerations/cautions in the "Tips" section. Dogs can exacerbate wildlife encounters. Please know your dog's fitness and ability before taking them on this trail.
Kid friendly? Possibly, if you're comfortable covering the distance with your kid. Please see special considerations/cautions in the "Tips" section.
Tips: There are a few rock scrambles near Albert Mountain that could get stressful. Also beware of heights/sheer cliffs, and the possibility of coming across wildlife (including bears). There is a small (but relatively safe/sheltered) parking area at Rock Gap. Deep Gap can be more difficult to drive to. If you come during summer months you can stay at Standing Indian Campground. You can also pay for day use at the campground and leave your car parked there.
What else can you do in the area? Check out Franklin, NC! Lazy Hiker Brewing Company is a popular watering hole for hikers and there's usually a shuttle option to town from Rock Gap and Winding Stair Gap along the AT.
- Outdoor Project: https://www.outdoorproject.com/adventures/north-carolina/hikes/standing-indian-loop
- AllTrails: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/standing-indian-mt-albert-nantahala-basin-loop--2
- The Outbound Collective: https://www.theoutbound.com/north-carolina/backpacking/backpack-the-standing-indian-loop-on-the-appalachian-trail
- Backpacking North Carolina* book (trip #27)
- AWOL's guide to the AT*
- Appalachian Trail Thru-hikers' Companion*
- Appalachian Trail Data book*
- National Geographic - Fontana & Hiwassee Lakes (#784)*
- Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile map*
- Appalachian Trail Official Map - NC/GA Maps 1 & 2