STAND BY ME
My first hiking trip to the Hot Springs area was in September of 1998. On that trip, I stayed at Rocky Creek Campground south of Hot Springs with Myron, Dorcas, Izaak, Bob, Laura, and Paula. This was one of our nicer car camping experiences. We spent a quiet evening camping, and did a pair of dayhikes.
On Saturday we visited Max Patch Mountain. Max Patch is a beautiful grassy bald north of the Smokies. The Appalachian Trail crosses over the peak on its way from the Smokies to Hot Springs. For our hike, we followed the AT 6 1/2 miles, from Max Patch north to Lemon Gap.
We spent most of the hike on the bald. It was only a short, easy hike from the road to the summit. Once on top, we had lunch and lounged in the sun. We enjoyed views in every direction, especially back south to the Smokies. It was a windy day, which made it nearly impossible to play frisbee. However, the gusts helped Myron try out his new kite.
The hike north of Max Patch was simply an easy walk through the woods. We did spook a grouse en route. That provided the only real excitement for the rest of the hike. That was ok though, because there was plenty of excitement to come the next day.
The weather changed dramatically Saturday night. Sunday morning brought thick clouds that promised rain. We had originally planned to hike to Big Bald, but that seemed futile in the hostile weather. Instead, we made a last minute change of plans. Instead of Big Bald, we decided to hike along the Big Laurel River.
We drove to Hurricane, a few miles east of Hot Springs. We parked at a fork in the road and found the trail as it headed downstream along an old railroad bed. The first part of the trail passes through private property, so we were careful to stay on the trail. We passed a couple of houses, but quickly left them behind as we entered a dark, forboding gorge. We followed the old railroad grade above the cascading stream. The whitewater looked like a kayaker's dream, though one narrow rapid looked like it could quickly become a nightmare.
The heaviest rain held off until after lunch. That afternoon, we reached the railroad tracks along the French Broad River. Our original plan was to cross the Big Laurel River on the railroad bridge and pick up an old trail up Pump Branch. This trail would take us up to Lover's Leap Ridge, where we'd meet the AT. We'd follow the AT from there back to Hot Springs, where we'd left a car.
It seemed like a great plan. The only problem was that we couldn't find the old trail up Pump Branch. We hunted around for it for awhile before we gave up. There was no longer any sign of it. We paused to reconsider our options.
The obvious choice was to turn around and hike back to Hurricane. The walk through the gorge was beautiful, so it wouldn't be bad to backtrack. On the other hand, our group has never been much for turning back. Allen Dehart, in his infinite wisdom, suggests following the railroad tracks back to Hot Springs. In those days we were naïve, and trusted his guidebook. We decided to extend the adventure and headed for Hot Springs.
The hiking was different out on the railroad tracks. Without the dense tree canopy, the steady rain became a deluge. We slopped along on the tracks, trying not to trip over turtles. Oddly, there was one turtle approximately every three feet along the tracks. We walked the rails for several miles, and I estimate that we passed literally hundreds, if not thousands, of turtles. It was like we'd wandered into some sort of weird turtle pilgrimage.
It was late that afternoon when we ran into a problem. We came around a bend and saw a long, high trestle extending across the river ahead of us. Somehow, in our spontaneous trip planning, we'd overlooked the fact that the railroad tracks were on the opposite side of the river back in Hot Springs. The bridge was simply the track, suspended a good 100' above the roiling brown waters of the river. There is no walkway or railing. To make matters worse, the French Broad in an unusually wide river, by mountain standards. The bridge is probably 100 yards across, but from our vantage point, it looked like a mile.
What to do? If we turned back, we'd have to go a good 7 miles to reach the cars. We'd be lucky to get out before dark, and if anything, it was raining harder. Hot Springs was practically in sight. We searched the river bank, hoping to find a trail. All we found were some faint fisherman's paths. They didn't lead far, and the steep wall of the gorge was heavily overgrown and not conducive to bushwhacking. We hadn't seen or heard a train all day. But was that a good thing, or a bad thing? The fact that one hadn't been by suggested that one was bound to be due soon. It is a heavily used railroad.
I turned away from our conference and saw a horrifying sight. Myron's dog, Izaak, had wandered out onto the bridge while we were conversing. He must've slipped, because he was dangling between two ties high above the river. He was hanging on for dear life by his front paws. I was speechless, but I did manage to wheeze and point. That was enough to draw Myron's attention. He ran out to Izaak and scooped him up before he could fall into the river far below.
Despite this bad omen, we decided to chance it. Backtracking was the only other viable option, and nobody wanted to do that. We reasoned that if a train came, we'd hear it long before it arrived. Myron led the way and carried Izaak in his arms. Dorcas came after, followed by Bob and I. Paula and Laura brought up the rear.
At first it didn't seem too bad. The farther out I got though, the more nervous I became. Once I was halfway across, I was fully committed. There would be no use in turning back. The sudden appearance of a train would mean an all-out race across the ties that form the bridge. In the distance, I heard a noise that might have been a train whistle. I looked around in alarm, but saw nothing. I resumed my slow progress, with my head down. At one point, the swirling brown water in the distance merged with the brown tie ahead of me, and I nearly put me foot down in the wrong place. I caught myself, and had to stop to catch my breath.
I continued across, and after what seemed like hours I was within a few steps of dry land. Finally I reached the far side, and the sensation of pointy rocks under my feet never felt so good. I turned back, and was panicked to discover that Paula and Laura were only halfway across. What were they doing out there?
They finally reached the far side and followed the tracks the last half-mile into Hot Springs. A couple of minutes after we left the bridge, a southbound train came roaring by. We never heard it coming.
It was quite a relief to reach town and get out of our wet clothes. It had been quite an adventure, but not one that we'll repeat. Everyone agreed that we'd avoid future hikes that require crossing dangerous railroad trestles. However, we did make plans to return to the area for more traditional hiking.
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