Below is a lengthy account of a lengthy trek along the BMT. I apologize for its passive, fragmented nature. Capturing the essence of this memorable experience has been almost as much of a challenge as the hike itself…
For just about as long as I’ve known Carl Laniak, he’s been talking up multi-day running. The idea of mixing two passions (running and backpacking) has always intrigued me. Last fall, he and I came up with a challenge that would give us something to look forward to and train for: a speed hike of the 288-mile Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT).
We hatched this scheme to start a wikispace and invite others to join us. We made sure to emphasize that each participant was undertaking an individual thru-hike and would assume personal responsibility for his/her actions. Basically, we wanted to coordinate these speed hikes so that we all started from Springer Mountain at the same time. Also, we wanted to level the playing field so that everyone traveled in a self-supported fashion.
With these basic ground rules and the wikispace established, we let the idea percolate through the winter and spring and went on with our lives. Other runners became interested and the list of participants eventually doubled from two to four. At one point, there were six or seven total. We finally ended up with five participants: Mohammed Idlibi, Kevin Lane, Charlie Roberts, Carl and myself. For the most part, the BMT fastpack remained what I hoped it to be: low-key and low-stress.
Meanwhile, the upcoming adventure became an exciting new project outside of work and running for me. My back bedroom was a lab/sweatshop for devising the right gear and food for the job. As winter turned to spring, a pile of fabrics and hardware grew beside the sewing machine. Ideas were scrapped or modified; it looked like a bomb had gone off. My room became an embarrassment.
I tried to test everything in the field as much as possible. The first test started on New Years with a 53 mile unsupported run to the summit of Mt. Mitchell and back with Mohammed. There were a few other limited opportunities to condition my body during this time. In early March, Kevin, Mohammed, Liz Bauer, Scott Brockmeier and I ran two days on the Appalachian Trail and covered 70 miles.
As the start drew near, I knew of only one other participant researching his options for resupply. Like me, Mohammed had dietary restrictions to consider and mentioned the idea of sending a mail drop to himself along the BMT. There had been limited discussion on the legitimacy of mail drops a while back and whether or not they should be considered a violation to the guidelines; I had initially voiced my opposition to mail drops. Mohammed was unaware of any of this. I decided that it really wasn’t a big deal. So instead of confronting him, I went home and did my own research.
I decided to call the resupply points at miles 109 and 189. The answers I received on what kind of food the stores had wasn’t good. Both confirmed they had the snack foods and breakfast stuff. What about dinner? None at 189; how about 109? “Well, we got beans and weenies” was the answer… I decided that I would mail dinners to myself and restock with everything else at these locations.
As I was searching for boxes small enough for my meals, I found a shoebox and stopped to think. I knew that there was a limited chance that I could complete this trail. Physically, I didn’t feel prepared. I’d spent way too much time and energy on this thing; I really wanted to put forth a respectable effort. Injury would be terrible, and what about gear failure? I had enough faith in my homemade gear, but the shoes were going to receive the most stress, and what if they blew out?
Just in case, I stuffed my small amount of food into an old pair of fastwitch 3s and mailed them to Deals Gap. This was on Wednesday, May 20th. When I spilled the beans (& weenies) about what I had done to Charlie, Kevin, Mohammed and Carl on the van ride down to the start the next day, I knew I’d committed a sin. I was chastised for trying to secretly get a leg up on the competition. However, this was not my intent.
An original idea of the fastpack was that each participant would pitch in $100 for coordination efforts (cost of gas, a campsite at the finish etc.), the remainder would go to the first person to reach Davenport Gap. It meant nothing to me if I was excluded from the prize money. However, I didn’t want to be considered a cheater by the others. I didn’t want these two small packages to compromise the legitimacy of this massive undertaking. I truly wished I hadn’t sent them.
A few days prior to our departure, temperatures reached record lows. I think each one of us was concerned about staying warm at night with limited gear. Last minute adjustments were made. We arrived to Amicalola State Park by around 8PM on Thursday. Thanks to Josh Wiesner, Carl was able to leave his van at this safe location. We filled up on water and weighed our packs on the visitor center’s scale (at the terminus for the Springer approach trail). I was pleased to find that mine weighed 13 pounds (with food and two liters of water). I was going to try to hold true to four principals during this trip:
• Pack weight should never exceed twenty pounds
• Proper foot care is top priority over making miles
• At least ¼ of time should be spent off the feet (and legs), preferably lying down
• Daily caloric intake should be at least 4000
Josh drove us to within one mile of the summit and we night hiked in to sleep at Springer Mountain shelter. We discussed the possibility of an earlier start time than 8AM, but as it turns out, 8AM was when we were all ready to go from the summit. It was misty and cool atop Springer, which was really perfect for running. Josh joined Carl, Kevin, Charlie, Mohammed and myself for the first 15 miles of the trail and did a great job documenting the start and then later posting it on the wikispace.
At the summit of Springer, I had no real itinerary. I planned to go by feel, day to day. I hoped to finish the trail in ten days or less. In my pack, I had one dinner, one breakfast, one day’s allotment of snacks and then some emergency back-up food. I intended to have dinner and resupply with snacks and one more breakfast 36.5 miles in at Aska Road. I was therefore only carrying about four pounds of food.
I worried about the others with heavier packs, but knew that each one of us out there was competent enough with what he was doing. I was really impressed to hear that Charlie was going to push for an unsupported record and not resupply at all along the trail. If he could accomplish this with his hefty 12.5 pounds of food, he would be a legend!
One really cool thing about an adventure like this is sharing it with others and learning from various approaches. I looked forward to the camaraderie with my fellow thru-hikers. I imagined that some of us would stick together and even camp out together, which could help boost morale. And yet, because I was so dependent on the first resupply point and feeling fresh, I was more interested in making the miles to Aska Road on day one.
The first dozen miles of the BMT was in much better condition than I anticipated. I had heard that the trail was less traveled than the AT, but this section is clearly well loved. The fluorescent green ferns were spectacular to run through. The climbs weren’t difficult; it was warm and sunny, but not too hot. Past the Toccoa River, before leaving the Duncan Ridge Trail, I encountered some humongous herbaceous plants, and marveled at this wondrous temperate rainforest.
Having averaged 4 mph from the start, I reached the store at Aska Road well before closing time. I couldn’t find a payphone, but got a chance to use the owner’s phone to briefly check in with Josh as stipulated in the guidelines for the fastpack. I then ordered a veggie pizza and loaded up with snacks. When the pizza was ready, I sat outside and ate half of it while drinking a coke and watching for the others. I couldn’t stomach the whole pizza, so I had the lady wrap it in foil. I then bought an ice cream snickers and packed up.
I let the food digest as I walked the next few miles of the BMT along a country road. I passed another restaurant and considered a second meal. This second stop seemed popular and had snacks and other supplies. I couldn’t complain with half a pizza in my pack waiting to get eaten when I got to camp.
Thinking it would be a good time to let my feet air out a bit, I removed my socks for this road walk. By the time I reached the Falls Branch trailhead, I had developed a hot spot on the ball of my left foot. I stopped to wash my feet out in the creek and apply leukotape and bodyglide. Feeling better, I tackled the last climb of the day over Rocky Mountain, crossed US-76, and took a quick bath in the creek below the covered bridge in the lingering daylight.
The night hike through the Cherry Dam development was quite bizarre. All these vacation homes were lit up with Christmas lights along the road and there were parties going on inside them. If I was more exhausted, I would have thought I was hallucinating. But hallucinations were a couple days out yet.
Relieved to find the new trail shelter at 9:30PM unoccupied and a good ways away from all the craziness, I knew this would be a fantastic place to rest for the night. I set up my bed and got comfortable reading the shelter register, which conjured up 2007 AT memories. I expected a couple other fastpackers to arrive at the shelter, but no one showed up.
My watch alarm went off at 5AM, however it was still way too dark to get going. So I slept in twenty more minutes and then got breakfast together before packing up. By 5:50AM, packed and ready, I walked over to the adjacent creek to fill up on water. I saw a headlamp coming down the trail and hollered out to Charlie. He said he’d been hiking a good bit through the night and passed Kevin and Mohammed sleeping on the trail a few miles back.
Charlie and I hiked together for a mile or so and we swapped a little info on how each other’s first day went. I told him that I didn’t plan to go as far as 50 miles on this second day because of the tougher climbs and potential navigation issues we’d encounter through the Cohutta and Big Frog Wildernesses. Before I knew it, I was pulling ahead of Charlie. I expected to see him again. The trail traveled for a while on a pleasant country road and then left the road for the ridgeline.
I prepared myself for another day of warm weather by ingesting the first of my four daily salt tablets. On the climb up Bear Den Mountain, I encountered the first and only bear of the entire trek. It was a yearling that quickly darted away. As expected, the trail was a bit more overgrown, but not too difficult to follow. Carl had done a great job of printing me a set of maps for the trail from around mile 50 to the finish. These maps were very useful on this day.
The carrot dangling in front of me for day two was the hot shower listed at Thunder Rock Campground. Also, the thought of revisiting the Cohutta and crossing into Tennessee got me psyched up for this day. Before I knew it, I was cruising along the South Fork Trail in a pleasant hemlock and pine forest beside the river. At Bear Branch, I soaked my feet and legs in the icy water and refilled my bottles. After a snack and full-body immersion, I cranked upwards over Hemp Top and Big Frog.
For ten miles, the trail descended pleasantly into Tennessee and I arrived at Thunder Rock (mile 91) a little after 5PM. The place was packed for Memorial Day weekend. I found the shower house and indulged in a warm shower. There was leftover soap on the floor that I used to suds up. I came out feeling great! After disposing of my trash, I went searching for a payphone, but couldn’t find one. I felt fortunate to borrow a cell phone from some youngsters to check in with Josh. I then hiked on into Little Frog Wilderness.
The hot spot on the ball of my left foot hadn’t gotten any worse, nor had it improved. I decided I’d try walking barefoot for a couple miles on the trail to let my feet air out. As expected, the going was very slow, but it felt good. I cooked dinner at the intersection with the Rock Creek Trail and then hiked on a couple more miles in the evening light to set up my tarp and camp on the ridge. I kept a list of the food I ate on day 2:
• Trail Mix granola cereal with pecans and nestle nido (~650 cal)
• EmergenC drink mix (20 cal)
• Peanuts w/flax seed oil (400 cal)
• Cheese snack crackers packet x2 (400 cal)
• PB cookies (340 cal)
• Honey roasted peanuts (230 cal)
• Snickers x2 (560 cal)
• More peanuts (230 cal)
• Sesame crisps (230 cal)
• Fantastic Foods refried beans w/two tortillas and flax seed oil (~1100 cal)
As I hiked out from camp at 6:10AM, I had the feeling that I was still ahead of the others, but hopefully not by much. The trip could certainly get lonely this way. I soon discovered I had a bit further to go to exit Little Frog Wilderness than I thought. Even more disappointing was the condition of the trail past Dry Pond Lead. Not only was it overgrown, it was minimally marked, which made for some tricky navigation. I took a wrong turn and followed a grassy USFS road for half a mile past Deep Gap before getting wise and rechecking the map.
With my goal for reaching the Hiawassee River and the Webb Brothers’ Country Store by 9AM out of reach, I quietly plodded along. Suddenly, there was Scott Brockmeier running up the trail! He’d come up from GA to camp along the Hiawassee and cheer the fastpackers along. I was really happy to have the company. We chatted it up as the miles flew by. The descent along Ellis Creek was quite beautiful and enjoyable. We passed Scott’s campsite and continued on to the outfitters.
We arrived at the outfitters a little after 10AM and I ordered some eggs, biscuits and gravy. I also got to use the payphone and receive an update from Josh. I was surprised and saddened to hear that Charlie and Mohammed had bailed on day 2. Scott planned to stick around for Kevin and Carl, but said that he’d run a bit further with me in this extreme humidity along the John Muir Trail.
The next order of business was to visit Webb Brothers’ Country Store to retrieve my mail drop. As soon as I walked in the door, the storekeeper Gail greeted me with a smile and handed me a note from Mohammed. He wanted to make sure that I felt welcome to open his box and use any of the food in it. Since he intended to have the box shipped back, I decided to leave it sealed and just purchase whatever else I needed from this nice little store. After slugging back some chocolate milk, Scott and I crossed the bridge, turned east and followed in John Muir’s post-bellum footsteps on his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf.
The trail traversed the lush northern bank of the Hiawassee River for some time before climbing steeply up and over a ridge. At a refreshing creek, Scott and I said our farewells. I had enjoyed the company, but now hiked on alone up to Unicoi Gap. The trail around Unicoi was quite scenic and enjoyable. As usual, the clouds were building up in the late afternoon. I had gotten rained on the night before and expected the same weather for this evening.
Trekking along this Tennessee/North Carolina ridgeline was one of my most memorable moments of the journey. The trail became overgrown by wild plants of such staggering biodiversity that I felt like a trespasser on a sacred land. I tried to walk reverently in this blessed time and place on Earth. This ridge also afforded views to the east and west.
To the west, I could see the mountains unfold to the Cumberland Plateau. With the song of birds as a soundtrack, I watched a distant veil of rainfall silently water a healthy mountainside forest. In turn, the mist from below rose to recharge the cloud. I could smell the rain. I stopped to cook a delicious dinner beside a high spring and hiked on to Sandy Gap. As expected, the rain came, and so did the wind. My shelter struggled to remain upright, and sleep did not come easily.
I had anticipated the difficulty of this day ever since I began researching the trail. Unlike any of the other days, this day had no carrot dangling on the other end. There were some severe climbs in the Bald River, Citigo and Slickrock Creek Wildernesses. And I’d need to push myself especially hard to get as far as Little Slickrock Creek because of a later start time.
It was hard to get going early because of the rough night with the weather and also the routine of dressing my feet properly for the day. A typical morning on the BMT involved waking up, breaking down shelter, eating breakfast, packing the snacks for the day, massaging and inspecting the feet, applying tape and lube where necessary, putting on the shoes, packing up, filling water, then hiking out. On this day, I got going by 6:50AM.
The difficulty began immediately. The trail had been increasingly overgrown. And this morning’s straight up and down wet ridgeline walk was rife with briars that sawed away at my shins. I was thankful to finally leave the ridge for Brookshire Creek. I trotted down to Bald River and forded the first of many rivers and creeks for the remainder of the trek. I knew of the climbs ahead, so I charged into them while paying close attention to my body. A voice of encouragement coached me through these challenges.
I’ll admit that in thousands of miles of solo backpacking, I’ve talked to myself. Even in running, I’ve talked to myself. The little guy on my shoulder in a competitive race bears a pitchfork and horns. He spits fire and curses me when I slow down. He injects negativity like venom into my soul. The other guy on my shoulder appears when I’m really out there, not chasing demons, but something higher. He uplifts me. It’s all in the nature of the journey which of these two appears.
As I engaged myself for the long ascent to Whiggs Meadow, I felt uplifted. My body, mind and spirit were working together as one. On a switchback, I caught sight of a large black body in front of me. It turned out to be a mama boar. Her piglets were slow to flee the intruding hiker, which agitated big mama. I yelled to hurry them along, but big mama made it clear that she was willing to fight. I gave the family some time to mobilize, then hiked on.
A couple switchbacks later, this boar scenario played itself out again. And then a few more switchbacks, again! Was this the same family? Why won’t they just get off the trail? As the boar fled, a turkey mama jumped out to defend her young. This was way too much wildlife for me. I hoped to reach the Cherohala Skyway in one piece. All told, I encountered a mama boar and her piglets no less than four times on the climb to Mud Gap. Now whether or not they were the same pigs, I’m unsure.
As I approached Mud Gap and the Cherohala Skyway, I saw another large black object on the trail. Unlike any of the previous encounters, this animal charged towards me. I recoiled in terror, prepared to fight for my life. A moment later, the menacing animal looked strangely familiar… Uhwarrie?!?! Indeed, there in the parking lot stood Lily, Kevin and Uwharrie. It took me a few minutes to convince myself I wasn’t hallucinating. Lily would later say that I seemed kind of there, but not there.
The story of how Lily, Kevin, Uwharrie and I crossed paths is simply amazing. To save myself some writing, I’ll refer to Lily’s excellent write-up on this serendipitous event. In a nutshell, Lily and Uwharrie were driving back from Mississippi when they saw Kevin hitchhiking on the side of the road and picked him up. They then decided to drive the Cherohala Skyway back towards Asheville to scope out where the BMT crossed to leave a note of encouragement for the other fastpackers. In less than ten minutes after they pulled off, I came down the trail…
While gawking, I had sense enough to sit down, remove my shoes and socks, and mix up two packets of black bean and whole grains meal. I listened to Kevin recap his hike. He had made it as far as Dry Pond Lead the night before. He took the wrong turn down a grassy USFS road as well and then camped at Deep Gap. After a rainy night, he decided to return to US-64 to hitch back to Asheville. He had his thumb out for no longer than ten minutes when Lily came driving by! Crazy.
I apologized for my haste, but was unwilling to give up my goal for Little Slickrock Creek. Lily and Kevin understood and we all hiked on a ways to an open field with a nice view. I then unveiled my idealistic plans for finishing the trail early on Thursday. So far, I was moving better than I hoped. Going under six days seemed like a fairy tale, but I was beginning to believe it could happen. I gave Lily a kiss, Uwharrie a pat on the head and a hug for Kevin as we parted ways. I was still in disbelief over this chance encounter!
A recent landslide had wiped out a newly built footbridge on this stretch. The precipitous scramble around this resulting hazard brought my attention back to the task at hand. I would need to move quickly along the Unicoi Mountain Crest to get to camp by dark. As I trotted along this remote section, which straddled two wildernesses, a late afternoon thundershower caught me. Rain poured down on my exhausted body, and for the first time (for certain), I began to hallucinate.
I have very limited hallucinating experience. But I’ve had partners who’ve hallucinated on night runs and entertained me with their experiences. For example, on a 2003 Smokies run, Scott Brockmeier kept an account of Saddam Hussein chasing after a baby carriage or something like that. My experience on the BMT started with a soaked windshirt, which sounded like wet leaves rustling nearby when my arms brushed against my side. However, in my exhausted state, I was unsure where this noise was coming from. My mind filled in the blanks: out of the dense foliage, I’d catch glimpses of a large black object moving beside me (Keep in mind all the wildlife I’d encountered earlier on this day). I was being stalked!
I hurried along in a terrible state of alarm for at least a mile before figuring things out. By then, the storm had dissipated. To the north, above the Slickrock Creek valley, a brilliant rainbow appeared. I was cold, wet, tired and hungry. My soaked feet ached after many miles. And yet, I would pound my way down Stiffknee Trail into the dense hemlock forest of the Little Slickrock Creek valley in time to collect wood for a fire, cook dinner and dry out.
The small fire worked wonders for cheering me up. However, my pocket LED flashlight accidentally and unknowingly went up in flames! I would need this piece of gear for the long push to the end. I didn’t find the remnants of my light until the next morning when I examined the ashes and saw the telltale sign of a scorched coin cell battery. No worries, I would try to pick up a replacement light at Deals Gap, the carrot-stop for the day. I dressed my feet although I knew they’d be soaked early on with multiple fords of Little Slickrock and Slickrock Creeks ahead.
The climb past Cheoah Dam to the old logging road leading to Deals Gap exhausted me. It served as a reminder that even this “easy” day along the Lakeshore Trail was going to be hard. On my jog down to US-129, I startled three families of turkeys. As soon as I popped out on the road, I encountered some bikers posing by the “Welcome to NC” sign. I asked if I could help take a photo for them and they were pleased. They also seemed somewhat bewildered by this random dirty backpacker jogging down the road with a smile on his face. I smiled because I had arrived to the last resupply of the trail!
On any other day, I’d label the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort as a hub of obnoxious and ridiculous “Dragon Slayer” action. But for this visit, I considered the place a blessed oasis! I was able to pick up my mail drop, purchase the same old snack foods, call in to Josh, and enjoy a great “Slayer Special” breakfast at the restaurant! When I learned to my dismay that the store did not sell flashlights, I shamelessly went around offering cash to leather-clad toughies for any kind of extra light they might have in their bike kits. I think I alarmed more than a few with this random request. One nice guy just gave me a flashlight! I went back into the store to purchase back-up batteries and a packet of ibuprofrin. I decided to not switch out my shoes and just tossed the old back-up pair. Finally after an hour or so, I was off into the Smokies!
When I called Josh, I learned that I was the only one left on the trail. It turned out that Carl had bailed back in GA, which meant that of the four other fastpackers, Kevin made it the farthest. I owed my fellow adventurers a good show. I was determined to put an exclamation point at the end of this voyage! With less than a hundred miles to go, I would see what my body was capable of accomplishing. My goal for the end of this fifth day was to get within 60-70 miles of the finish.
I pushed hard on the climb up Twentymile Creek up over the spine of the Smokies near Shuckstack. There, at this familiar gap on the AT where I napped in defeat five years ago, I sat and enjoyed a much more optimistic break. The descent to the lake was steeper and more rugged than anticipated. Happy to finally get to easier terrain, I hurried along, fully aware that I would be coming in to camp later than usual. What happened next did not help at all.
As I made my way around the lake, I noticed these living trees submerged underwater. Clearly, the lake level was way up. What I didn’t notice was a critical junction at Hazel Creek. All of a sudden, the dirt/gravel road I followed disappeared into the lake. I stopped and scratched my head. I hadn’t seen any trail closure signs. Was the Lakeshore Trail flooded out? No way, I had to get around this arm of the lake! I checked my map and found where I thought I was. Off with the pack and into the water I waded with my precious equipment held above my head. Before I knew it, I was up to my chest, and still going down!
I reluctantly turned back in defeat. As I retreated, I heard a splash behind me and witnessed a squirrel voluntarily swim across the lake. The little bugger was making sure to keep its tail out of the water! Was I hallucinating again? If a little squirrel could do it, than so could I! Upwards I scrambled into the laurels. Thirty minutes later, cut-up and exhausted, I returned back to where I started. I rechecked my map and decided to return half a mile to the Hazel Creek Trail intersection. Only then did I learn that my hour-long excursion was the result of not stopping to carefully read a trail sign. I vowed to read every sign carefully from there to finish!
It became clear to me that my body was wearing down as I stopped to cook a twilight dinner on the trail before hiking on into the night. Sleep became harder night after night because of how sore my lower body was at the end of each day. This short night hike to get to campsite 76 would test how well my new flashlight worked and how I’d fare in the dark. If I found it unpleasant, then I’d back off from my ambitions of pushing all the way to the end the next morning. Really for the first time on the trail, I was ready to be done. But many miles and the most difficult climbs of the entire trek separated me from the finish line. This was going to hurt.
After staring into an unpleasant bull’s eye beam of light for forty minutes, I arrived to my destination. The verdict was still out on how well I liked night hiking. I figured I’d just have to play it by ear the next day. I set up my shelter as, just like clockwork, the showers started. It felt so good to lie down! As I drifted off into a fitful sleep, I couldn’t fathom pushing 71 miles nonstop to the finish. No way, I thought. No way.
I got going by 7AM, which was an hour later than I hoped, but honestly what I expected. I took extra care with my feet this morning. I drained every blister and applied an adhesive coating (courtesy of the great Annette Bednosky) before taping and lubing up. My feet were down, but not out. I carefully inventoried the food for the final push. I only had snack foods left, so I split them into two piles, one for the day, one for the night. I pocketed the daytime goodies and packed away the nighttime goodies. I was finally ready to go!
If I could average 4mph for the first 37 miles or so to Newfound Gap Rd. then maybe, just maybe I could break six days. I moved quickly along the remainder of the Lakeshore Trail. I passed the first of many hikers and equestrians along the Lakeshore and Noland Creek trails. There were four major climbs ahead of me and I was pleased to find that I could run a good ways up the first to the Noland Divide. However, as I approached the divide, the trails got more and more rugged and progress slowed to a discouraging creep. I kept thinking about forward progress, no matter what.
The next long climb to Thomas Divide was a pleasant surprise. I’d been on the Sunkota Ridge Trail before, but a long time ago. I found this path particularly nice and fast. A refreshing rain shower doused me on the ascent. Only a five-mile descent separated me from the Smokemont Campground, and it looked like I was going to be there by 6PM! When I got there, I filled up on water and ate a packet of tuna with two packets of flaxseed oil. It can take the body up to eight hours to metabolize fats. I figured I’d have this calorie-dense fat kicking in sometime during the wee hours of the coming morning.
Only 50K remained! I left Smokemont to ascend Chasteen Creek pumped up! I was exploring a new part of the Smokies and making great time. My body felt better than I thought, and I took comfort in the two tablets of ibuprofrin and shot of caffeine I carried in my arsenal. My plan to utilize the remaining daylight and get as far as I could worked well. Darkness finally caught me as I descended into the rugged and beautiful Enloe Creek gorge. I made a mental note to return to this place to explore its promising swimming holes in a more leisurely fashion.
As I struggled up Hyatt ridge, I noticed for the first time how hard I was breathing. My body was simply exhausted. I shifted into granny gear and crept along while the light and shadows morphed into weird shapes around me. I thought: here we go into the wormhole. Through-the-night runs have never been my cup of tea. But I decided I could endure one night on the entire trip. So I disregarded the bizarre sights and sounds I encountered during these semi-conscious hours and remained focused on the finish.
I popped one ibuprofrin as I climbed up to Laurel Gap shelter. My plan was to nap for one hour at the shelter and then resume the trek through the remainder of the night. The back of the shelter appeared out of the mist in a small field. I took a mental picture and tried to get my bearings of where to go so that I wasn’t confused later on. There was no one in the shelter except for some annoying rodents. I didn’t care about them. I set my alarm for 2:45AM and flopped down on my pad. It seemed like a minute went by before my watch started beeping. Here we go, the final push. I fumbled about and was soon on my way.
I found what I thought was the route toward Sterling Ridge and made my way down the trail. Things started looking eerily familiar, so I pulled out my map and compass. I registered that I was moving mostly southwest, which was wrong. I turned around and backtracked to Laurel Gap. The back of the shelter appeared out of the mist in a small field. Ok, so where do I go? There were four trails: one to the privy, one to the water, one towards the finish, and one back the way I came. I quickly eliminated the trails for the water and privy. I followed the other trail a good ways, but it too seemed eerily familiar. Just to check, I turned around to get a picture of what it looked like popping into Laurel Gap. The back of the shelter appeared out of the mist in a small field… I was utterly confused.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the Sterling Ridge trail junction was just 0.1 mile past the shelter, I might still be out there trying to figure out where the hell to go. Fortunately, because of the close proximity of landmarks, this was a low-stake navigational crisis. Soon I was on Sterling Ridge headed for the summit. I popped my last ibuprofrin and tried to eat and drink a little. My stomach, for the first time in six days, was feeling a little queasy. I took this as another sign that my body was just about done.
Atop Sterling, I climbed the fire tower and got a little dizzy in the darkness. I inched my way back down to terra firma and took my shot of caffeine. Only eight miles to go, mostly downhill! Much to my dismay, I stumbled on roots and rocks, unable to run. Dawn arrived on the Baxter Creek Trail and I finally busted out into an awkward trot. It felt way too long before I crossed the bridge at Big Creek. There was my welcoming committee! Josh, Carl, Adam, Mom, Dad and Uwharrie had all camped out at Davenport Gap awaiting my finish. Josh and Uwharrie ran with me for the last two miles up to the gap. Everyone cheered me on as I completed the trail in five days, 23 hours and 16 minutes.
And just like that, with the snap of finger, it was over…
I want to thank everyone who made this hike possible. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to run the BMT. As a result of my wonderful time on this trail, I’ve fallen into a deeper love of our Southern Appalachians than ever before.