It was a cold drizzly evening in October 2004. Having just staggered into Celito Lindos completely soaked, and surely not smelling that great, the Dos Equis never tasted so good, and the warm salty tortilla chips were heaven in a basket. Between my gorging and guzzling, when I actually looked up and registered the expressions on the strangers surrounding me at this crowded table, I realized I had some explaining to do.
I recognized only two faces. At least Scott knew what was up: I was just back from a five day adventure beyond compare. This was my last semester of undergrad at UNC, and true to a senior’s mindset, I had decided to skip a few days of classes to extend my fall break. Hoping to learn more about myself while getting in a good workout, I made my way to Brevard for a solo challenge.
This was to be a completely self-supported endeavor. October was a beautiful time to be playing outdoors. Brilliant fall colors made me feel like I was living inside a stained glass globe. Fond of acronyms, I christened this journey of self-discovery the SAGE: the Southern Appalachian Glow Expedition. The glow was all around me.
The few people who knew of my whereabouts had only a vague idea what my plans were. I had faith that I could complete a 360-mile circuit in 10 days. The route included sections of the Art Loeb, Mountains-to-Sea, Appalachian, Bartram and Foothills trails. Additionally it traversed many trails in Dupont State Forest. My first and only resupply was five days in at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
I was exhausted at the end of the first day as I lay on the uneven ground underneath my poncho tarp atop an unknown knob waiting for the water to boil on my alcohol stove. My pack was stripped of all but what I thought at the time to be the most essential gear. Yet it still weighed in at twenty pounds with food. That weight, combined with rugged terrain meant that I was on my feet for 12+ hours each day. The days were getting shorter, so night hiking was going to be mandatory.
The next afternoon, I found some delicious apples growing in a gap along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. This unexpected treat took the edge off a very difficult second day, which concluded unceremoniously with a bivouac underneath an overhang of the men’s public restroom atop Waterrock Knob. I remember having the premonition that this “vacation” might actually become an immense chore.
By the end of the third day, thanks to a long section of road running on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was back on schedule to finish. But when I took my shoes off at the Mt. Collins Shelter, I noticed my feet were absolutely shredded with blisters. The next day’s vertiginous trek over the spine of the Smokies was not going to be fun.
I limped all of that fourth day and into the night with the goal of making it to Fontana Dam. I was completely spent when, in the darkness, I reached an exposed and unfamiliar summit. The lights of Tennessee flickered below me. At that moment, I felt so small and helpless. I was cold, tired and lost in the Smokies.
I decided to bed down for the night atop the mystery mountain. I woke up long before dawn completely soaked by clouds that had rolled in overnight. I figured out where I was: Gregory Bald, two miles off course. The death march started at 3 AM. I made my way back to the AT and limped southward towards Fontana. In my sleep-deprived delirium, I started to think I could actually make up the distance and get back on schedule.
Collapsing a short ways before Shuckstack, I fell into a fitful sleep as the sun began to rise. When I woke up, I was warmed and encouraged by daylight and started on the final descent out of the park. As I recall, I made it to Fontana by 8 AM. Again I thought if I could regroup and bust out 35 or more miles before dark, I’d be where I needed to be. No. I was injured, no chance. Gone was any hope of continuing this monstrous trek.
I now had to figure out exactly how I was going to get back to Brevard. By car, this distance was a few hours; by foot easily a few days. I didn’t have a car, and I was in no shape to cover the distance on foot. So I stuck out my thumb and started to limp down the road…
Relatively speaking, all the official ultras I’ve run, even the 100-milers, are over in a blink of an eye. And the runners in these races, even as exceptional athletes, are cushioned from the elements they traverse. I do fondly thank back to jovial aid station workers and the welcome smell of late night quesadillas. But these memories cannot compare with the relentless quiet of the night and the smell of wind through the spruce.
Supported organized races are like coloring books while self-supported adventure runs are blank canvases. As Spartathlon legend Yiannis Kouros has said: “Now we are given food and fluids- they even accompany us sometimes. Phidippidis had the same clothes down to Sparta and back again and had to drink from the springs where he found them… We therefore need to appreciate Phidippidis’ ‘exceeding’ which is greater than our own.”
The hitch back to Brevard was quite epic, taking several rides and all of that fifth day to complete. Although I covered less than half the distance of the ambitious SAGE loop, I definitely had the glow to show from this potent adventure. This 2004 fast pack attempt ranks as one of my most memorable adventures. And it’s in this spirit that I look forward to the next chapter…
Come Friday, I was ready to unwind on the trails with a long run. After our half-day at school, Lily dropped Uwharrie and me at 221 and we ran through wind and snow to meet her for a chilly sunset atop Shortoff Mountain. Carl came into town, and we went to check out the Catawba River Brewery in Morganton.
On Saturday, Carl, Uwharrie and I ran the same 20 mile point-to-point in reverse to search for one of my wool mittens. Carl found it on the climb up Pinnacle. This second day was much more comfortable without the wind chill. During his visit, we brainstormed something to get excited about for 2009. The idea is still in the very early stages, but it's headed in the right direction: off the pampered path...
We got to race the sun on Kitsuma today. On our way back from Amazing Savings, Lily hiked down towards Old Fort while I ran out and back with Uwharrie. Night and rain caught us, but we made it out. Believe it or not, there are mountain laurels in bloom! And the fall foliage is fading, but still impressive. Yet my thoughts on this welcome holiday are mostly on the past weekend's camping trip to South Mountains State Park.
At 18,000 acres, South Mountains State Park is the largest park in the state. There are over 40 miles of trails. We got to see maybe half of them as we scoped out a 17 mile loop that Mo is planning to make into a 50K fun run. The South Mountains truly feel like south mountains. For one thing, there seem to be more pine trees. It's a beautiful area.
I'm particularly intrigued by the yet-to-be-opened western half of the park, which could bring access to this wild area within 15 miles of home. If anybody has any information, I'd love to hear it. I plan to explore on foot and will post my findings. Here are a couple maps. The first was taken from the SMSP master plan available for download at the park website:
The dirt road that straddles the nature preserve and game land currently has my attention. Could it possibly provide a 15+ mile access from US-64 at Roper Hollow Rd. into park property? I highlighted the route on this topo map:
Finally, some more photos from Sunday's run. No registration for Uwharrie 40, or the Challenge, so Mo, let's get on it...