superstitious, wash your face and hands
Rid me of the problem, do all that you can
Keep me in a daydream, keep me goin' strong
You don't wanna save me, sad is my song
By Stevie Wonder
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?† I have cried desperately for help, but still it does not come.
ďWhen Fungi is quoting scripture, you know itís serious.Ē
How did I get into this mess?† Thatís the question I kept asking myself.† There I was, on a steep hillside covered in fallen trees.† Any trace of a trail had disappeared long ago.† I was attempting to bushwhack up to the road, but two previous attempts had been thwarted by deadfall, cliffs, and briars.† The road wasnít far, but progress was excruciatingly slow.† Over the past seven hours, I had traveled maybe a mile.† Now, the sun had already dropped behind the west wall of the gorge.† It would be fully dark soon, and I had no idea how much longer it would take to reach the road, if it was reachable at all.† I had a tent, but nowhere to put it.† I hadnít seen even a marginal place to camp in hours.
It all started innocently enough.† Iíve been doing a lot of dayhiking lately, but not much backpacking.† Iíve got a couple of serious backpacking trips planned this summer, including an 8-day solo trip in the North Cascades.† I felt the need to get in backpacking shape, and really challenge myself.† I decided to do an overnighter in Linville Gorge.† I couldnít find anyone else free to join me on Friday and Saturday, so I decided to go solo.
I planned a loop route, with a descent from the west rim of the gorge to
The Rock Jock Trail used to be one of my favorites in the gorge.† The trail runs along the edge of the escarpment, providing some of the most spectacular views in the wilderness.† The trail has always been rugged and primitive, but it provides access to some of the gorgeís hidden gems.† Best of all, it connects the Conley Cove and Pinch-In Trails. †That was before the Pine Beetle blight, and the fire, and the ice storms, and the hurricanes.† All of these disasters have taken a toll on the forests in Linville Gorge.† Jack and I had tried to hike the northern end of the Rock Jock Trail a little more than a year earlier, and found it obscured by deadfall.† We only hiked about ľ mile of the trail, and probably crawled over, under, and through several dozen fallen trees.† The Rock Jock Trail has always been officially un-maintained.† I didnít have high hopes that the trail wouldíve been cleared.† If not, Iíd definitely be walking the road.
I reached the beginning of the
I arrived at the Conley Cove Trailhead at 9:30.† †First, I decided to scout the Rock Jock Trail.† I hiked down the Conley Cove Trail for a few minutes, to the un-marked but obvious junction with the Rock Jock Trail.† I hiked it for a few minutes, and found it almost completely clear of trees.† In a number of places, fallen trees had been freshly cut.† Apparently, someone had invested a lot of effort into re-opening this trail.† After a few more minutes of easy walking, I was convinced.† Iíd hike the Rock Jock Trail, instead of the road. †If the trail deteriorated, I could always bushwhack up to the road.† The trail runs parallel to the road, less than a mile away. †After all, what could go wrong on this warm, sunny, Friday the 13th?†
I returned to the car to retrieve my pack and the dog, and soon I was on my way.† It didnít take long to reap the rewards of the Rock Jock Trail.† After a few minutes, I found myself traversing open cliffs with spectacular views of the gorge.† Just a few steps away, sheer cliffs fell more than a thousand feet to the raging whitewater river at the bottom of the gorge.†
I continued south, and began a gradual descent into a side canyon.† I passed below rock walls featuring several seep springs.† A few minutes later we passed through the headwaters of the canyon, before climbing up and around the next ridge.† The trail remained clear and easy to follow, and I was delighted with the progress I was making.
Eventually the path became fainter, but it was still easy enough to follow.† The navigation was made easier by the occasional ribbon marking the route.† This seemed to be helpful, until I reached a fork in the trail.† Oddly, the ribbons went both ways.† Now what?
I decided to take the low route, as I was afraid that the upper trail would head out to the road.† A steep descent led into another canyon.† I crossed a small stream, and followed a rough path towards the cliffs of the gorge.† I found two trees here with small metal signs.† One indicated that the path ahead leads to Razorís Edge.† The sign in the other direction announces the route to Razorís Edge Rock Ė a narrow perch high above the gorge.
I continued on to Razorís Edge, which is a cliff with a spectacular
view.† It was only 11:30, but it was far
too scenic a spot to rush by.† I stopped
there for an early lunch to admire the view.†
Itís one of the best spots in the Wilderness to view the river from
above.† From here, the cliffs of the
Chimneys, the NC Wall, and the Amphitheater seem almost close enough to
touch.† Beyond are the sheer walls of
I explored the area after lunch, but found no sign of a continuing trail.† The cliffs were thick with fallen trees, so if there was a route from here south, itís only a memory now.† After a few minutes I gave up, and returned to the junction I had reached earlier.† At this point, it was just a few minutes past noon.
I continued following the trail, which was still marked by the
occasional ribbon.† After crossing
another ridge, I began to descend into
In hindsight, this wouldíve been an excellent time to turn around.† It was only early afternoon, and I had plenty of time to backtrack, walk the road to the Pinch-In Trail, and descend to the river in time to find a campsite.† That wouldíve been the intelligent course of action.† Of course, I didnít do that.
I plunged ahead, but quickly found the trail unpleasant.† After a bit of bushwhacking, I decided to go up an over the intervening ridge.† I figured Iíd regain the trail on the opposite side.
The bushwhacking here wasnít too bad.† I reached the top of the ridge after a lengthy slog.† From there, I had a relatively clear view of the route ahead.† Immediately in front of me was a large canyon.† Beyond was the ridge that the Pinch-In Trail follows down to the river.† How far away was that ridge?† A mile at the most, I judged.† Even if there was no trail, I thought I could bushwhack to it in an hour or two.† It was still early afternoon, so I had plenty of time to reach the river in time to find a campsite.† I decided to press on.
A steep and gnarly descent followed.† Going down was easier than climbing, but the deadfalls and briars were beginning to take a toll.† My energy reserves were beginning to run low.† It was a bit of relief when I rejoined the trail.† At this point, Saucony started to head north along the trail, back towards the car.† Apparently, she was trying to tell me something.† She seemed slightly puzzled when I called to her and continued south, deeper into the jungle.†
The trail was still obscure here, but the route was still passable.† The ribbons continued, and the path was
actually easier to follow than it was coming out of
That remained true for a few minutes.† Before long, the path disappeared again.† I descended steeply into the canyon, where I found a dry streambed.† At this point, I didnít see any ribbons or any other sign of the trail.† Now what?† My faint memory suggested that the route descended the canyon, before traversing just above the escarpment.† I wasnít sure though, and I was afraid that following that course would lead me to a dead-end at a cliff.† I also considered heading up-canyon, towards the road.† I was afraid that going that way would lead to cliffs below the crest of the ridge.† Ultimately I decided to continue south, towards the Pinch-In.
The climb to the next ridge was brutal. †The bushwhacking earlier had been difficult, but manageable.† This was something else altogether.† The hillside was steep, and most of the ďforestĒ was horizontal.† Making any sort of progress required climbing over, or crawling under, dozens of trees.† The rhododendrons were probably the worst.† If youíve ever bushwhacked through rhododendron, you know that those trees donít give.† I found myself aiming towards areas that were (relatively) more open.† However, it didnít take long to discover that areas with less tree cover had more briars.† At times, the thorns merely tore at my skin.† In the really bad areas, the briars latched onto my pack, my clothes, and my flesh.† On countless occasions, I found myself hung up, unable to move.† Escaping required carefully untangling myself, or trying to force my way through.† Even worse was the Devilís Walking Stick.† Iíve seen a few of these thorny trees over the years, but I encountered hundreds of them on this day.† Unfortunately, I fondled more than a few of them.
The hike was harder on me than it was on Saucony.† Typically I would hack my way through a nasty deadfall.† After 10 minutes or so, Iíd turn back to find Saucony patiently waiting for me on the other side, only a few feet away.† Iíd call to her, and she would be at my side a few seconds later.† How did she do that?
I finally crested the ridge.† Pinch-In ridge loomed ahead, a little closer than it had been earlier.† It was now after 3pm.† Where had the time gone?† Oh yeah.
I seriously considered turning back.† If I did, Iíd probably make it to the car, or at least a passable campsite, before dark.† However, turning back meant abandoning the trip.† It also meant fighting my way back through everything Iíd just traversed.† Just thinking about that was draining.† I decided to try for the road.
I began climbing the ridge, but the bushwhacking actually got worse.† I didnít think it could get worse, but somehow, it did.† Iíve always known that bushwhacking can be wicked, but I never thought it could be impossible.† I guess I learned something on this trip.† It can be impossible.† Frequently, continuing up wouldíve required climbing over a pile of fallen trees tangled in briars.† In those spots, I would traverse to the south in hopes of finding a way around.† Before long, I was moving more to the south than I was up the ridge.† Since I started on top of the ridge, this meant that I was actually traveling downhill, away from the road.
A few minutes later, I ran out of water.† Saucony had found water in many of the small canyons we had traversed.† Still, it was a hot, sunny day, and she was panting.† If we managed to continue up the ridge, weíd have to do it without water.† I finally conceded defeat, and headed down into the next canyon.
The canyon was small, but luckily there was a tiny trickle of water running through it.† I descended to the stream, where I found what mustíve been a man-made pool.† Rocks had been stacked to block the flow of the creek to create a place to filter from.† I looked around, and I was pretty sure I was back on the trail!† There were no ribbons, but there was a faint tread along the hillside.† Unfortunately, from there south, this faintest of paths was completely buried under a pile of trees.
Saucony drank for several minutes right from the pool I was filtering from, but I didnít yell at her.† Drinking dog backwash was the least of my concerns.† I was surprised to find myself dehydrated, even though Iíd finished off a gallon of water already that day.† I drank cold, refreshing water until I gave myself a headache, and filled up my 3 liter pakteen.† I then indulged in a quick snack, and considered my next course of action.
I didnít have many options.† It was now approaching 6pm.† 6pm!† How did it get that late?† For the first time, I began to doubt that Iíd make it to the Pinch-In Trail before dark.† The river?† Forget about it.† I knew there was a nice campsite near where the Rock Jock used to meet the Pinch-In Trail though.† That site is close to a stream, too.† If I could just make it there, everything would be ok.
Trying to follow the trail was impossible, so I began climbing to the southwest.† I figured that traveling in that direction would at least bring me closer to the road and the Pinch-In Trail with every step.† Unfortunately, every step was a trial.† Trees I had nimbly hopped over earlier, I was now bashing with my knees and ankles.† The brambles actually got worse.† Then, it started to rain.† Are you kidding me?† Big storms were forecasted for Saturday, and snow was expected on Sunday.† Was the weather changing early?† That would add to the fun.† I thought about setting up the tent.† But where?† I was on a 30, maybe even 40 degree slope absolutely covered in fallen trees.† There was nowhere to put a tent.† Hell, there was nowhere to even lie down.† Sitting down wouldíve been an achievement.† It was supposed to get cold that night. †A cold, rainy night without shelter would be a serious situation.
I uttered a lot of questionable language during this time.† Somehow, all those F-bombs failed to help.† I blamed everyone I could think of for my
predicament.† I blamed, my boss, for
changing my schedule only a few days before.†
Originally, I wouldíve been in
Mostly though, I blamed myself.† I was frustrated, and oddly, embarrassed.† How did I get myself into this?† This was the sort of thing you read about other people doing.† Clearly, I was stubborn, and stupid.† Not just stupid, but stoopid.† Any sort of rational person wouldíve turned around long ago.† Why didnít I?†
After another hideous deadfall, I found a perch on a downed tree.† At that point, I decided to pray.† All I wanted was a way out.† The road, a trail, a helicopter, whatever.† I began to wonder if Iíd ever get out, never mind before dark.† So I sat down and prayed.† I prayed for a way out, or at least somewhere to camp.† I hadnít seen even a marginal place to camp in hours.† If I could just find a passable campsite, Iíd be able to rest enough to hike out the next day.
I had left my intended route with my wife, as always.† I was supposed to meet her in Valdese the next day for lunch.† She was doing a triathlon there that morning.† I knew if I didnít show up, sheíd panic.† The last thing I wanted was being the subject of a manhunt courtesy of the Burke County Search and Rescue Team.†
I resumed the climb.† A few minutes later, I reached a rock face that wouldíve been easy to climb in normal circumstances.† However, this rock was draped in briars, and I quickly discovered that I could no longer lift my leg high enough to reach the first foothold.† Instead, I was forced into a long, tedious bushwhack around it.† That brought me to another rock face.† Somehow, I knew getting out of the gorge would come to this.†
I was able to climb this one.† At the top I sat down briefly to catch my breath.† Then, I stepped onto a fractured piece of rock the size of a La-Z-Boy to regain the hillside.† The rock shifted, and my life flashed before my eyes.† A desperate grab at a tree branch saved me from a long, nasty fall.† The moment was sobering.† What if I injured myself out here?† That would change everything.† I vowed to be even more careful as I proceeded.
I stopped for another breather at the next tangle.† It was now 7:30.† I figured I had 30 minutes of daylight left.† Then what?† I certainly couldnít continue bushwhacking in the dark.† The rain had stopped, and I looked back, over the gorge.† I was greeted with a stunning sight.† A spectacular double-rainbow was arching over the gorge.† The rainbow seemed to begin and end down at the river.† At its pinnacle, it soared over Table Rock and the NC Wall.† Was it a sign of hope?† I decided it must be.† I would get out.
A couple of minutes later, I reached another small cliff.† This one was a little different though.† There was a small cave at its base!† It wasnít much.† In fact, itís a huge stretch to call it a cave.† Really, it was more like a hole under a rock.† It was fairly deep though, and there was just enough clearance to wiggle back in there.† But it was flat ground.† The Lord provides, and yet, he retains his sense of humor.
I didnít even consider continuing on.† It was almost dark, and I was exhausted to the point that I could barely move.† Every time I did, my body was wracked with cramps.† My hamstrings, quads, calves, and feet all took turns locking up.† Strangely, whenever I closed my hand in a fist, I was unable to re-open it.† What was up with that?
I slid my sleeping bag into the ďcaveĒ and set up camp.† There was a small opening in the forest on the hillside, too.† I didnít even consider building a campfire, although there was certainly plenty of wood!† A campfire there wouldíve been hazardous.† Dead, fallen trees were everywhere, and the entire area was extremely dry.†† Even lighting my stove made me nervous.† I hate to say it, but the gorge appears to be ripe for another severe wildfire.
I cooked chili for dinner, and it was awful.† I think at this point that my digestive system had completely shut down.† I followed it up with a chocolate granola bar, which was slightly less nauseating.† I drank some water, to help alleviate my cramps, but I knew I had to ration it.† There was no telling how long it would take to hike out the next day.
On a lark, I got out my cell phone, knowing that Iíd never get a signal.† Usually I donít even carry my phone, but I did on this trip because I didnít want to leave it in the car.† I turned it on.† 3 bars!† From where I was sitting, I had a clear view through Chimney Gap to the lights of a small city.† Lenoir?† I mustíve been getting a signal from there.† So I called my wife.
The call didnít go through.† I tried several times, and it wasnít happening, 3 bars or not.† I decided to try sending a text message.† Hereís what I wrote:
ďIm in a small jam.† Lost trail.† Camping now in cave just north of pinchin tr not far from rd.† Wil hike out am.† Might be late 2morrow.† Donít worry.† Were ok.Ē
The text message didnít go through, either.†
I crawled into my sleeping bag shortly after dark.† Saucony followed me into the cave, and snuggled next to me.† At first she tried to lie on my legs, but that wasnít going to work.† My legs were already on fire from the hundreds of cuts Iíd received that day.† The cave floor was a bit rocky, but I was surprisingly comfortable.† At least it was comfortable until the first drop of water hit me in the left eye.† Thatíll wake you up in a hurry!† Somehow, I managed to not bang my head on the ceiling of the cave.† I re-positioned myself so that the drips wouldnít hit me, and quickly fell asleep.
It rained briefly a few times throughout the night.† Fortunately, the rain never amounted to much.† Iím not sure how waterproof my cave wouldíve been in a downpour.
Later, I woke up to the sounds of a truck up on the road.† It sounded close.† Either it was close, or it needed a new muffler.† I could hear its radio, too.† Either they were blaring it, or they really were close.† Normally, I wouldíve been annoyed at someone playing loud music while I was camping.† In this situation, it was oddly comforting.† Hey, is that freedom rock?† Well turn it up!
I had to pee at 4am.† I hated to get up.† I was in a comfortable spot, and I didnít want to disturb the dog.† I gave in to the need though.† Afterwards, Saucony somehow claimed the most comfortable spot.† I spent the rest of the night on top of a rock.
The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need
He lets me rest in fields of green grass
And leads me to quiet pools of fresh water.
He gives me new strength.
He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised.
Even if I go through the deepest darkness,
I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.
Your shepherdís rod and staff protect me.
I woke early the next morning to cloudy skies.† I decided to skip the eggs Iíd brought, and settled for a bagel for breakfast.† I packed up quickly, as I felt considerably urgency to get out of my predicament.† I was able to walk, despite the lingering soreness.† It took a while to convince Saucony to leave the comfort of the cave, but she seemed to be doing fine.† Unfortunately, she drank half of our remaining water.† I finished most of the rest.† When we left the cave, I was only carrying a pint of water.
I was able to climb to the top of the cliff without too much difficulty.† Some difficult bushwhacking followed, before I emerged from the jungle in a somewhat open area of forest.† Iíd been going 30 minutes, and I was exhausted already.† Fortunately, the steepest terrain was behind me, and the woods appeared more open ahead.† After a five minute break, I was ready to go.
Five minutes later, I reached the crest of the ridge.† From there, I continued uphill, towards the road.† After a short distance, I spotted a beer bottle.† A beer bottle!† Normally, I wouldíve been annoyed to find litter in the forest.† This time though, I was delighted.† Unless this litter-bug was an Olympic discus-thrower, I had to be close to the road.
It turns out that he mustíve thrown like a girl.† I looked up at Saucony, and realized that she was standing in the middle of the road.† The road!† Finally, I was at the road.† I wandered around in it for a few minutes, until I was sure it wasnít a mirage.† I appeared to be at the end of Mossy Canyon Ridge, which is a ľ mile up the road from the Pinch-In Trailhead.† I was also very close to the official southern end of the Rock Jock Trail.† There was no sign of the trail though.
It took me an hour to walk the 3 miles back to the car.† That was roughly the same distance Iíd covered in 9 Ĺ hours the previous day!† Along the way, Saucony spotted a squirrel, and chased it at a full sprint.† Apparently the bushwhacking hadnít been too hard on her.† At that point, Iím confident I couldnít have chased down a one-legged old man pulling a beer cart.
I reached the car at 9:30.† I
headed for Valdese, but stopped at
I actually did the short walk to
I made it to Valdese by noon, just in time for lunch.† I had a plate of barbeque there.† A couple of hours later, we stopped at Chiliís for a second lunch.† That night, we ordered a pizza for dinner.† The next day, the feeding continued.† After sleeping in until 10, we had a great breakfast of eggs and hashbrowns.† A little later, I had a sandwich, before we headed over to our neighbors for a party.† While we were there, I did nothing but eat.†
It appears that I will recover fully.†
My bruises have faded to a sickly yellow, and the hundreds of cuts on my
legs and arms have scabbed over.† Now, if
I could just do something about this infernal itching!† Physically, Iíll be fine.† Mentally? †I donít know.†
Believe it or not, Iím planning on returning to the Rock Jock
Trail.† The northern part of the trail,
as far as
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