Labor Day weekend snuck up on us. With three days to play, we had to do something big. A Thursday night brainstorm left me with the idea of a local 74-mile two-day stage run along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail: running from Marion all the way to Calloway (the highest peak on Grandfather Mountain).
With a catchy name for this endeavor, other folks were bound to surface. In less than 24 hours, a crew of six runners (Mohammed, Greg, Scott, Liz, Uwharrie and myself) and three campers (mom, dad and Lily) had been assembled.
General logistics get hashed out last minute on Saturday morning as runners convene in Marion. Lily will drive the bat mobile and drop-bags to the campsite at the end of day one off NC-181 and meet up with mom and dad in the muppet mobile.
Greg, Scott, Liz, Mohammed, Uwharrie and I cram into the millennium falcon for the short drive to Woodlawn. By 10AM we’re running up and over the first hill and down to the North Fork of the Catawba River. This is the beginning of day one: 34 miles and 7,000+ vertical feet unsupported with very limited water and hot conditions.
Uwharrie and I pull ahead of the others as we top out on Dobson Knob. The heat is already zapping me. Hoping to finish before dark despite a late start, I sip the last few drops and we crank out a fast pace to the first water at 12 miles.
I munch a slice of leftover homemade pizza and guzzle two bottles of creek water before refilling once more in anticipation of the worst climb of the day up the burnt-out ridge of Shortoff. Pushing on, I try to mark a couple tricky turns for those behind me.
As we drop steeply from the summit of Pinnacle to the Linville River, I pause for some teaberry and muscadine refreshments. The Appalachians are amazing: despite this scorched landscape, nature can still produce delicious fruits.
Uwharrie and I waste little time submerging ourselves in the river. With just my head above water, I feast on my last slice of pizza. We have three miles uphill, all exposed to the sun’s fury immediately ahead of us.
I really begin to worry about Uwharrie on the ascent. She’s panting very quickly and wanting to stop and hide from the sun under every bush. I offer her some of my dwindling water and carry her dog pack. I think: all we have to do is reach the reliable spring in the blessed shade of the hemlock trees above the cliffs.
Here the day begins to blur. I start to feel dizzy and short of breath myself. Finally we near the spring and my eyes adjust to the darkness of the shade. There’s a tremendous sinking feeling: the reliable spring is dry. We climb down the gully to search for water. There’re only drips from the rocks, which are impractical to fill up with if we’re still pushing to finish.
Back up to the spring, I begin to scoop out a murky puddle with one bottle, straining the soupy water through my running shorts into another. A day hiker spots me doing this and gives me 20oz. of her water. This encourages me enough to continue five more miles across the barren rim to Table Rock.
We rest frequently wherever we can find shade. At a cliff, the shadows of a dozen curious buzzards pass over us. I recall Forrest Carter’s account of a Cherokee burial where the remains of a body are left to be eaten by the birds, the spirit carried away.
Our bodies and spirits intact, we eventually make it down to the gorge of Steels Creek where a few full-body immersions are long overdue. By 7:15PM, we arrive to camp along the forest service road near NC-181. Mom, dad and Lily welcome us and feed us spaghetti, delicious bread, salad and apple pie. I sip at a beer by the fire as it gets dark and wonder how the others are doing.
By 10PM, everyone else has arrived. The waterless section over the gorge discouraged them from finishing day one and they called it after about a marathon to Table Rock. Scott caught a hitch to camp and returned in the bat mobile for the others. All are treated to the finish line feast.
An epic day for all. Uwharrie is whimpering and shivering at camp. I know she’s toast. Scott and Liz clearly make it known they’re done as well. Mo and Greg had only planned on doing the first day all along. So is anyone going to go all the way to Calloway?
Morning arrives, it’s time to decide. Damage report: I’ve felt better, but if the others are up for meeting me along the parkway, I’m going to dig deep and finish this beast. After much deliberation, I set out solo into the drizzle at 8:15AM for the beginning of day two: 40 miles, 7,000+ vertical feet unsupported.
I think the ultimate deciding factor for me is the promise of countless cascades, waterfalls and swimming holes. The increased cloud cover and higher elevations also sweeten the deal. Now all I have to do is get my weary body to Calloway by 6PM. One hour in, I realize I’ve dropped my salt tablets and will now plunge into an even deeper deficit.
It’s time to play it as smart as possible (considering the inherent stupidity of this undertaking). I fill up my bottle and eat regularly. I keep a comfortable 4+ mph pace and cool my core in the creeks. I feast on some pizza before the long climb up Roseboro Rd. to Beacon Heights.
I reach the Tanawha Trail a little before 2PM and begin the technical traverse under the Linn Cove Viaduct around the east face of Grandfather. It’s cooler at this elevation and I notice for the first time that I’ll be climbing into the clouds.
In a small meadow filled with beautiful wildflowers, I fill up my bottle and check the profile. The distance I have left is discouraging. And something is starting to percolate in my gut. My outlook improves immediately upon bumping into Scott and dad running towards me on the Tanawha. Dad informs me I have less distance to go than I thought.
Dad runs with me to the finish. From Rough Ridge, we can look far down and away to Table Rock and the side of Shortoff, barely visible through the haze. The views are spectacular, but the crowds are annoying. We bump into Liz running the same direction as Scott. I ask dad if he has any calories to spare and receive an ancient mango clif shot.
I’m running on close to empty as we begin the six mile round-trip ascent of 5,964’ Calloway. We enter into a dark boreal forest, and the smell of spruce is invigorating. We scramble up rocks and ladders to reach the summit ridge in the clouds by 5:30PM. There’s no view, but it’s great to be here.
Now for the descent: I’m spent. I make no less than four emergency pit stops along the way. Back to the parking area, mom, dad, Scott, Liz, Lily, Uwharrie and I all hang out for a while before the treacherous 1.5 hour drive back to Marion in Lily’s car. Nothing more need be said about this cramped ride other than: simultaneous shit-my-pants-projectile-vomit action. If you ever need a reason not to do something like this, here it is:
Thanks to Scott, Liz and Lily for helping me get back safely.
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