Especially when I walk two miles out of the way and have to turn around and come two miles back to camp.
This weekend I completed part of the foothills trail from Highway 178 down to the parking area at Table Rock state park. Four of us were scheduled to go: Sunshine, Mighty Mouse, Cowboy and myself. The biggest problem with a one-way hike is always how to get back to the car at the end. So, when Sunshine said she might not be able to go the whole way with us because of knee issues, that meant we had a shuttle driver. It also made for a much easier first day.
We started out at Highway 178 and the foothills trail. Sunshine dropped us off with our little day packs. I had some water, snacks, gps and map, and my poles. Very different experience than I’m used too. We walked East along the trail 5 miles or so to the top of Sasafrass mountain, which sits on the border of North and South Carolina.
Along the way I got behind, because I like to stop and take pictures and look around. It was one of my favorite hikes since I have started this. We were able to relax and take it easy, and I could stop and look around and play with my camera. There wasn’t a huge push to make miles and get to camp before dark – which happens sometimes and makes the hike feel more like a forced march than a relaxing walk through nature.
I was far enough behind I felt like I was alone, and was able to work out a few things. For one, I remembered some of the words to The Common Pastology, and finished my own verse:
Praise, Sauce from where all spices flow, Drink up ye pirates here below.
Until the county school board calls, praise pasta, sauce, and meaty balls
As it was this past September, Olive Garden will remember,
Bowls without end, RAmen, RAmen.
Walking through the woods singing that, someone might have thought I was a bit nuts, so I was a little glad to be alone. Finally I met up with Cowboy and Mighty Mouse at a road crossing, and we took off up the Side of Sassafras mountain together.
I like to geocache, and although I had found a few online to pick up on the way up the side of Sassafras Mountain, I neglected to actually put them on the GPS. Oh well… we ran into a pack of boy scouts earning their hiking merit badge. From the panting, gasping, bent over, about-to-puke looks some of them were displaying, I am willing to bet this was the first trip away from the x-box for some of them in a while. I give them credit though. We were carrying four or five pounds of stuff on our backs, they had to be lugging at least 25-30 pounds each.
We finally got to the top of our first goal, Sassafras Mountain . I stood in both states for a few seconds. It is the highest point in SC but is NOT, however, the highest point in North Carolina. The highest point in North Carolina is about twice as high. Sunshine had left her car in the parking area, and walked down to the campsite to claim space. She also left me her remote, which meant we could get into the car to get our regular packs, and CAKE! There were three slices of cake, laid out on plates in the trunk. It was just awesome. More hikes should end with cake.
After closing the trunk, we started downhill from the parking area. I fell to the back sooner or later, with Cowboy and Mighty Mouse out front. They hike faster than me, and like I said, I don’t mind being in the back. I tried to keep up with them for a while. After all, the campsite was supposed to be “a mile or so” from the road. I marked the road crossing on my GPS, and kept track of miles.
If you have followed me at all, you will know I like my technology. It’s hard to get lost on the foothills trail, most of it is well marked and blazed and really it is only one trail for LONG stretches, not like Panthertown, for example, where trails are constantly intersecting and there are few markings. So I really could have left the GPS in my pocket and wandered around, taking pictures with my phone (the iPhone camera really is pretty neat, with its built-in HDR and panorama stuff that my wife’s cheap point and shoot doesn’t do well). So between looking at the GPS, the wife’s camera, or the phone, something happened on the way to the campsite.
You see – when someone says “the campsite is a mile or so” – that could really mean anything. To me that says “at a minimum, one mile, perhaps as much as two”. So around the time the GPS said I had walked .95 miles (I remember looking at it) I figured I better start looking for camp. Something was also telling my brain camp was on the left. Around the time I was at 1.5 miles in, I started getting a bit concerned. Sunshine’s knee was acting up, and I was doing a LOT of downhill. I figured she probably wasn’t going to want to walk up all this in the morning. Plus, I was on the side of a mountain, and there was no way anyone was going to be setting up a tent there, unless they put the door to the side, and not directly up or down the 20 degree slope. So I kept going.
At around two miles, I was really a bit worried. I wondered if I missed a sign post, and Every few hundred yards I stopped and did my best ‘Squatch call, figuring someone might hear me and scream back, or that I would get to take a blurry photograph of something brownish. No answer, but the land was leveling off, now that I was at the bottom of the hill. I looked at my map, and compared it to my GPS. I was only a little farther past my guess at where camp should be, and kept going. I was making good time along a flat section, when I finally determined I was WAY off from where I should be. I turned the phone on, hoping for some sort of signal. Standing on a stump and holding it up, and straining just the right face muscles, I was able to communicate with camp via text. “You’re two miles past us, turn around”. Turn around? And do this all again tomorrow? I walked five miles to sassafras, then three more. I was up over 8 already, had to do 2 more all UP hill, and beat the sun to camp? I said I would just find a spot and they could see me in the morning. I was browbeaten into submission and began the trek back. I had come down in elevation over 800 straight feet (not counting little ups and downs, on the valley floor looking up at camp, if it were right next to me, it would be 80 stories up).
It was at this point my water bladder was starting to run dry, and I realized I was tired and my legs were wobbly. The only water source I remembered passing was a boulder with a little stream of drips coming over it, about 1.5 miles back. Determined to make it that far, I ate a nutri-grain bar and a special K protein bar, hoping the sugar and carbs would perk me up. So I trudged back up hill towards camp. At one point I gave up and sat down, panting and wondering who was playing drums in my head, figuring I had another mile to go. It was then I heard water and looked down, and about 30 feet down what could only be called a “steep ass hillside” was a little steam pouring over the rocks. I took out my “dirty water” bag, half slid down the hillside, grabbing rhodos to slow myself, straddled the stream, and let freezing cold water fill my bag. I put the top on, slung it over my shoulder, and crawled on all fours up the hill again. I finished off a Cliff bar while I waited on the dirty water to run through the filter into my camelback so I could drink it. Dirty is a misnomer… it was clear and looked fine, but in the mountains, Thou Shalt Not Drink Directly From Streams unless you want to risk getting a case of something that will leave you soiling streams for days. It tasted SO good and cold. Someone came by and asked if I was okay, to which I replied “yes, just lost and thirsty”. I headed up hill for the last “mile or so” and finally reached camp. Sunshine and Cowboy were on the trail waiting for me.
Thankfully, they had built a fire already, and I set my tent up pretty quickly. I sat my stuff out to fix my food. I had brought a half-cooked steak, which I cooked in a pan over my alcohol stove. It was OH MY GOD worth every HOLY CRAP extra mile of walking to YES YES YES! eat that thing in the woods. Some of the boy scouts sharing the large camp site were giving us looks. I cooked Sunshine’s Steak afterward… which is one of the reasons she was so anxious for me to walk back. Who knew the little steel pan from my daughter’s old play kitchen would work so well in camp? The little Chinese slave kids at the Fisher Price factory make some good stuff. It just fits inside a quart size ziplock bag.
Steaks done, mashed potatoes and bread consumed, two Chai Latte’s later, I was ready to hang my bear bag and lounge around. It only took me three tries to hang the bag, and I didn’t hit myself with the rock bag once. I’m getting better at this. I still want an Ursack… for reasons I will mention in the next paragraph.
The night went fine. The scouts turned in early, leaving just us up until around 830 or 9, when cowboy spread out his tarp next to the fire. I got in my hammock, fought my blankets into submission (you ever try undressing in a hammock in the dark and slipping into the equivalent of two sleeping bags? No? It’s an adventure), put my vest over my head, positioned my phone, and tried to relax.
On cold nights, or nights where the moon is on full brightness, I take my down camp vest and position it over my ridge line so it will block a little breeze and cut down the light. The phone case also fits on the ridge line in such a way that it hangs over me. I can lay in the hammock and watch a movie over my head. It’s pretty awesome. Thankfully I peed before bed and was a little dehydrated I think, because I didn’t have to pee until I got up again. You know what sucks? Climbing out of a warm hammock at 3 am when it’s 30 degrees outside, standing half naked in the woods trying to pee before the shivers begin wracking your body so hard that you can barely hold onto what you need to hold onto so you don’t pee on your feet, then fighting your blankets into submission again. So – none of that happened.
At 6am cowboy commenced breaking wood and relighting the fire. I dressed and went for my food. Unfortunately I had a bear bag issue, and something got caught. I pulled hard and the tree came down. I guess it was dead to start with, and it wasn’t very big, but the whole thing fell over. I drug it back to camp and told cowboy “There was a slight bear bag issue, but I brought wood”.
After bagels, grits, and another Special K bar (I don’t want to look at one for a week, seriously), we packed up. Sunshine urged the scouts to finish off the marshmallows and M&Ms she brought with her, and we left her to fend for herself. After all, she only had to walk a mile to the car. We had 9 to go.
We started off and I regaled them with tales of my previous night’s adventure, pointing out certain spots where I stopped and certain places I thought they might have camped, which lead me down the dark path. I found my little stream again and pointed it out, but for the life of me couldn’t find the little cut tree that showed me “hey here might be a good spot to go down”. We continued past my second rest stop (a BIG trunk in the middle of the trail) and got to my turnaround point (a small stump in the middle of the trail). 150 yards ahead (seriously, like just around the corner), we crossed a bridge with a GREAT water source right ON the trail. Had I given it a few seconds more I wouldn’t have had to dog crawl up the hill. Having about 1.5 liters in my back, I stopped and grabbed another liter or so in my dirty water bag as a backup.
Then it was up the side of Pinnacle. Everything Sasafrass wasn’t, Pinnacle was. Steep, punishing, brutal. A steady up hill for three miles, switchbacks around rocks bigger than houses, and now with 25 or 30 pounds on my back instead of 4. We got to an overlook just as I ran out of water, and I filtered my backup water into my main bladder. The overlook was beautiful, and we rested for a minute.
I fell behind agin as the mountain continued up. I was panting, exhausted, and my legs were screaming “NO!” but I had to go on. There’s no stopping and wimping out (unless you have time and supplies for another night).
Finally we got to the trail intersection near the peak, and started down. We came out on Bald Knob, which is beautiful and scary.
You can look out over the valley below, but there’s nothing to keep you from walking right off the edge hundreds of feet above the trees. Mighty Mouse took a great picture of me and Cowboy, and we headed on down.
The next 3.5 miles were all downhill. Sure, that sounds great. 1800 feet of elevation drop on a trail is pretty brutal.
Twists, turns, roots, rocks, and everything make life really interesting. Just don’t talk about how the poles save you from falling, because Karma will throw you a curve ball and put you on your butt (yes, I fell – thankfully I slipped and fell backward, so my pack took the brunt of it, like falling back on a big mattress).
By the time we got to the bottom, I was feeling awful. I hadn’t eaten enough, and was feeling wobbly and nauseous.
Thankfully after a slight confusion (and Mighty Mouse getting stung by a yellow jacket) everyone got together and we headed to a local eatery. We were very dismayed by getting our hopes up, and having them dashed to the ground. There’s no menu of fried goodness on Sunday, they have a “country cooking” buffet. While we were contemplating going somewhere else, one of our party got in line. Decision: Made.
I ate a piece of fried chicken, five string beans, half a roll, and drank 3 quarts of sweet tea. I know It was 3 quarts, because they served us in large moonshine-sized mason jars. I guess I needed either lots of sugar, or lots of water, one of the two.
All in all, despite the extra walking and screaming muscles and the one point up the side of Pinnacle I really thought about crying, I had a great time. Having hiked with this crowd twice, I knew what to expect. The easy pace (at least the first four miles), the dessert surprise, the orgasmic steak, and the new scenery were all magnificent. I’ve knocked out another chunk of the Foothills Trail, and only have the last 30 mile wilderness section to do.