30.1 miles. 30.1 miles of back country, wild, North Carolina beauty: that’s what you’ll find in one of Western North Carolina’s most renowned, trafficked, and toughest trails, the Art Loeb. Winding from Camp Daniel Boone in Canton, to about 1 mile from Pisgah National Forest’s southern entrance in Brevard, the trail provides some of the most challenging, yet rewarding hiking in the region. That’s why we decided to do it in a single day.
When one of my good friends suggested the idea, I laughed. Then, with a quick jab at my manhood as his response, I was verbally committed. I also happen to be the kind of person that, once verbally committed, I am also, of course, physically.
I’ve run a marathon. I’ve hiked 22 miles in a day with a 40 pound backpack. I’ve done triathlons and all that crap that someone who would decide to attempt something like hiking 30 miles in a day would probably have on their resume. But of course, there’s always a new challenge, something with a twist, that beckons the sinister, sadistic, masochistic athlete in us all. And with that, it was decided. Saturday, April 20th, was our day to walk 30.1 miles through some mountains. In Five Finger shoes.
At 5:30 a.m., after sleeping in the back of his van for a less than optimal 6 hours with a slight wine buzz, my buddy Marlin and I eagerly put on our headlamps, strapped on our Camelbaks, stuffed some peanut butter and Nature Valley bars in our faces, and were off. The temperature at 2200 feet was a balmy 40 degrees, enough to trick us into thinking a light polyester shirt and a thin shell jacket were enough to shield us from whatever cold lay ahead. As we quickly ascended 3000 feet in the first 4 miles, we were even tricked into removing our jackets. Nature, however, had other plans. Upon reaching the ridgeline at about 5200 feet, the temperature had dropped to 30, and the exposed mountaintop was subject to what we estimated were 15-20 mile an hour winds, providing us with a lovely windchill of, oh, say, 20 degrees. My liner gloves were not enough to stop the cold, forcing me to place my hands in my pockets and use my quads for the miniscule amount of warmth they could provide. This forced my hiking poles into being dragged by their straps along the ground, useless, for the first 5 hours of the hike. My heels froze, and the numbing pain made every step horribly regrettable. Why the hell did I decide to wear these damn barefoot shoes?! Why was I walking through 30 degree weather, in April, with a horrid windchill?! I thought to myself this is stupid. This is awful. I want to be in a hot tub, with a beer, a woman, and a massage. Those thoughts, though, were also my only motivation to keep walking.
About 5 hours in, at 10 a.m., we finally descended to 3200 or so feet and came to an intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway. We were grateful that the temperature was a good 10 degrees warmer as we laid down on the side of the road to snack for a minute. As we sat ad speculated on whether or not what we had set out to do was a good idea, we heard some huffing and puffing from below; seconds later, three men who looked to be in their mid 30’s arrived at the road crossing.
“Sheeeww! Steepest one yet!” I heard one yell, in a remarkably Southern accent.
“This ol’ trail’ll whip ya in to shape!” Another one responded, in an even more colloquial drawl.
I looked at Marlin and it was obvious we both were stunned.
You see, where I come from at least, people with a drawl don’t usually run – especially on mountains. Where I come from, people with a drawl are nonexistent in gyms, libraries, and places of remarkable natural beauty. Not to be obtuse, or to say that there aren’t people with Country accents in these places at all – I just can’t recall ever encountering any.
And there I was, 12 or so miles into my hike, being passed by three men 18 or so miles into their uphill, marathon-plus-distance, freezing-ass-cold run… Who all three had distinctly Southern accents. To say I felt like a little girl is an understatement.
Regardless, we chatted with them a minute and remarked at the awesomeness of their endeavor. They wished us good luck, and with that, we decided we’d better get going. If we were at least going to make it by nightfall.
As we descended even further in altitude, the forest came alive with the sound and color of early spring. Our sub-freezing, slightly hellish adventure had taken a turn for the best, even if my feet had already begun to hurt like a bitch.
I smiled once I was able to remove my jacket, sip the thawed water out of my Camelbak, and close my eyes as the sun warmed my face. And again, I was reminded how hiking can compress all of the emotion one may experience in a year into a single day – how closely the act translates to and mimics life;
You start hiking and are happy to be hiking (living).
Some shit happens (your toes freeze) and you’re pissed off (you’re boss yells at you).
You stop and take a (lunch) break and recuperate only to be reminded of how far you have to go (someone has gone farther than you have in less time, on more difficult terrain).
You start hiking again because that’s the only way to get where you’re going; the only way to get closer to those old guys who are beating your ass.
You stop and take a second to appreciate the sun on your face and your breath and the fact that you’re alive. And you remember that who gives a shit about those old guys they’re on their own journey and comparing yourself to others is silly anyways.
Oh shit, Pilot Mountain is just as steep (this serving job is just as hard) as I remember. Here we go. Again.
And so on and so forth.