October is supposed to be the best leaf-peeping time. Visitors drive up to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway (MP 451.2) and look out at the outstanding scenery. Some walk the half-mile to what is the highest trail on the parkway. Little do they know the work that is going on just below them. Volunteers crush rocks, cut down trees, remove roots, and move rocks to build a small section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Almost all are over 60 years old, many much older. Yet, they come out week after week to work on building this piece.
Yesterday, the Carolina Mountain Club Asheville Friday Crew finished a 2.2 mile section of the MST on the east side of Waterrock Knob. Kate Dixon, Executive Director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and I were there to walk through the section and admire the amazing trail work. Ann Hendrickson, one of two women on this crew, walked with us from Waterrock Knob to Fork Ridge Overlook.
The crew plan was to split into three teams to do a sweep, repair, check some areas, and finish a step and rock section in the middle. Then they’ll pull out the tools and grip hoist and walk them down the cars. Next Friday, they’ll blaze the trail with the familiar white circles.
Building the trail required over 6,000 hours of work to cut through the rocks, roots, and trees so hikers can walk comfortably. It’s hard work to build trail at almost 6,000 feet above sea level. The season is short –May to October– and depends on the Parkway being open. In the winter, the freeze/thaw cycle plays havoc with the trail surface. Rocks pop out, trees fall and water and ice are all over the trail.
The crew leaves Asheville at 8 am and drives an hour to the work site. They work for five hours and are back at 3 pm, exhausted, muddy, and happy. The first concern is always safety. The second is to have fun so that the crew wants to come back week after week. And oh yes, they do want to get work done.
“The skill and artistry of the trail is extraordinary,” says Dixon. “So many visitors come to Waterrock Knob. Even if they don’t hike 1,000 miles across North Carolina, they can walk a mile and get a good feel for the trail.”
This past week, I felt that my whole life was cancelled.
On Sunday, I planned to go on the Carolina Mountain Club all-day hike in Pisgah National Forest. It was advertised as 12 miles with not much altitude. The leaf color was going to be outstanding. But rain was predicted.
Rain doesn’t bother me when it’s warm – or rather not freezing. The leader sent out one Breaking News item.
“Make sure to bring water shoes because the creek crossings may be high.” OK, no problem.
In the evening, I made my sandwich, mixed up some Gatorade; I was being optimistic that it was going to be so hot that I was going to need electrolytes. The next morning, we woke up to drizzle but I ignored it. I checked Breaking News at 6:30 am, two hours before, and no new message.
At 7:30 am, I checked again–the leader had canceled because of high water. What!! What about the water shoes? Isn’t that why we needed them? Oh, well. Leaders can cancel their hike for whatever reason. Maybe I’ll go on the half-day hike. But that one was canceled as well, because of threat of thunderstorms.
So Lenny and I hiked in Bent Creek close to home. It rained a little on and off but there were plenty of other walkers and joggers.
Tuesday, I was scheduled to lead a hike for Friends of the Smokies in Cataloochee. For several days, the weather forecast was predicting heavy rain because of a hurricane. But I have been running these monthly hikes for five years and have never canceled. We go rain or shine and we were going to go this Tuesday.
Again, lunch made, pack ready, I went to bed. The next morning, I woke up to rain but I ignored it. I stretched in front of the WLOS news and weather. Not only was it raining but also high winds were bringing down trees. Downed trees? That got my attention. What if a tree came down on the road into Cataloochee or in the park? We could be stuck there for a couple of days. For the first time, I called Anna Lee, the outreach associate for Friends and we agreed to cancel a Friends hike.
We don’t have a way to let hiking members know that we’ve canceled a hike. After all, it hasn’t happened yet. I went to our first meeting point in Asheville and scoured for anyone who looked like they might be hikers. Of course, it would help if Friends members had Smokies license plates. I walked around the lot several times. It turned out that our hikers are smarter than the leader; no one showed up in Asheville.
I went to the “Y” that afternoon. While there, I got a message that my writing class was canceled that evening. A class canceled because of rain? I know about snow days, but rain days?
Oh well. At this point, I felt my whole world was canceled.
We’re rescheduling the Cataloochee hike for Tuesday October 21. The color and the elk will still be there. Let’s try it again.
This week, the cover story in Time Magazine is about home cooking.
Mark Bittman, who frankly I had never heard of, praises cooking at home. He claims that most people, especially young people, just eat fast food – and they eat it fast.
So Bittman wants to show us how to get back to home cooking. He even has recipes – Time Magazine with recipes. Is that a first?
But Bittman didn’t discuss trail food, or more specifically, for now, trail mix.
Why but expensive trail mix when you can fix it yourself in advance? Get a large mouth jar where you’ll keep your supply.
Trail mix is sometimes called GORP – good old raisins and peanuts in equal amounts. That sufficed me for years. Then Lenny added M&M – they really don’t melt. About that time, packaged trail mix appeared in stores, so I got more creative. Here’s a basic recipe. In a large bowl, mix half dry fruit and half nuts. Here’s my basic recipe. 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1/2 Craisins 1/2 cup walnut pieces, 1/2 raw peanuts
To this basic mix, I add 1/2 cup of a treat that I discover at bulk bins. In the winter, it’s chocolate bits but chocolate melts in hot weather. Some people love banana chips. For me, it’s chopped mangos or dried cherries.
I keep the trail mix in a large screw top jar and measure out a portion in a ziplock bag for the day. A standard portion is 1/3 cup but I usually take at least 1/2 cup.
Now what’s so difficult about that? Bittman would be proud.
Last evening I gave a talk on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at the annual meeting of the High Country Hikers in Hendersonville, NC. The audience was a well-traveled group of hikers who’ve been all over the world. We discussed hiking in France, the Baltic countries and the Inca Trail.
The evening before, I attended the quarterly Carolina Mountain Club council meeting where I updated the council on the MST – the whole trail. We, Western North Carolina hikers, are an arrogant lot. We feel that hiking in the Carolinas ends at about Grandfather Mountain. Who would want to go any further east?
The MST goes from the Mountains to the Sea. And how do you get to the sea? Via the Piedmont and the Coastal Plains which are fascinating areas in themselves. In addition, as I stress to mountain audiences, this is where the MST goes through several North Carolina state parks, such as Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock, Eno River, and Falls River. Maybe I missed a couple.
In Western North Carolina, we have so much federal land–the Smokies, Blue Ridge Park, Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests–that we don’t seem to miss state parks. But state parks are very soft-core and their trails well marked.
As Sharon, Smoky Scout, my MST hiking partner, says when she talks to a WNC audience, “You need to get out of the mountains, people.” She’s right. And once you get out of the mountains, the hiking gets a lot easier.