On Thursday, April 4, I drug my brother out of bed at 5:00 am so he could help me get my next big adventure rolling. We hopped in his truck and took off down the road for Pisgah Forest. The forty-minute ride was teeming with energy and excitement, accented by the sounds of fast raps and heavy bass that got us both pumped for the journey to come. We pulled into the Davidson River Campground, hugged each other goodbye, and as I watched him drive away, leaving me in the darkness with nothing but my mental fortitude and what was in my backpack, I felt certain that this was exactly the kind of journey I’d been needing.
I was about to embark on the (supposedly) thirty-mile behemoth that was the Art Loeb Trail. The ALT is dedicated to naturalist and mountaineer Arthur J. Loeb, who, according to the plaque left in his honor, “deeply loved these mountains.” While many long-distance trails dwarf the ALT in length, this trek is not to be taken lightly. The ALT is notorious for dive-bombing down into the valleys of Pisgah Forest and then forcing hikers to claw their way back up to the mountaintops multiple times along the way – and that’s if you go the North to South route.
You see, this was an instantaneous decision I made to challenge myself as a hiker. I have climbed mountains all my life. I’ve made sketchy river crossings, crushed 20+ mile days when necessary, I’ve traversed using ropes and have had to make my way out of the woods in the dark (that’s more on account of poor planning than impressive woodsmanship, but let’s move on), but most of what I’ve explored can be done in a day, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do here. I chose to leave out of the lowest elevation terminus so that I could test myself against a trail that would continually test me, and I wanted to do it all in one day.
I took a few minutes in solitude at the terminus to read the info-kiosks about things I already knew. Leave no trace procedures, hiking ethics, maps, and all the normal stuff that one would expect to find here, but I wasn’t actually reading any of it. I was getting my mindset right for the trek to come. I clicked my headlamp on and was on my way.
The morning was incredibly tranquil. There was nothing in the world except the light beaming from my headlamp, the sound of gravel crunching under my feet, and the cool air and music of the Davidson River flowing beside me. Aside from the serenity it brought me to take the trail in full stride and solitude, my early departure also meant that I could maximize my walking for the day, hopefully allowing me to complete the whole trek without having to set up camp.
I thought a lot about Mr.Loeb himself that morning. I wondered what it was that he loved so much about these mountains. Was it the beautiful, spring-fed streams that trickled and crashed through every ravine, imbuing the land with life and stocking it with fresh fish? Could it be the wind that cut through the soul itself, leaving one refreshed and invigorated? Did his love lie in the lows of the valleys or the highs of the mountaintops? I imagine a true mountaineer would appreciate all of this, and his trail certainly reflected this love.
I crossed the stream and began my first ascent of the day. It was constantly changing from sets of staircases to cut-out gulleys that sat beneath the embankment by about a foot. I felt my breathing get heavy and my legs get tight, reminding me of the challenges to come. Before I knew it all my huffing amounted to my first completed climb of the day, and one quick swig of water sent me back on my way down trail.
Once I had gotten my feet underneath me I picked up my pace and charged on, hoping to beat the heat of the midday sun to Pilot Mountain, the hardest climb of the trail. This behemoth sits all alone, rising out of the valley on both sides and standing as a pillar beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway. It ascends some 1,800 feet across two miles, that’s more than a half mile of elevation change per one mile walked! If the the slope and length of this magnificent beast wasn’t enough, the added weight of the pack, lengths of full sun exposure, and the fact that Pilot Mountain arises only after one treks almost half the trail makes for one incredible fight to get to the top. I distinctly remember getting a phone call from my father after an hour of climbing and exclaiming between heavy breaths that “this one’s gonna put me in my grave.” A little excessive? Probably, but I had nowhere to go but up.
Once I had conquered Pilot Mountain, I ate lunch, threw my pack on, and began making my way down the mountainside. The far side of Pilot Mountain is littered with old construction debris and massive lengths of cables that once held up the tower that no longer resides atop Pilot Mountain. The trail swings through green tunnels and then cuts up from the second of two shelters along the trail through much rockier sections of the ALT. If I had more time, I would’ve packed my climbing shoes and had some fun on all the boulders the trail snakes around, but that was for another day.
Pilot Mountain had taken a lot out of me, and I definitely felt my pace slowing. This made the section from Pilot Mountain to the Blue Ridge Parkway feel more daunting than it actually was, but I knew I had to press on. I began hearing cars above, and shot up the last few-hundred feet of climbing that brought me to the road. I’m sure none of the people driving by understood why I was shouting and jumping up and down like a madman, but this felt more like a victory to me than Pilot Mountain itself.
The thing is, I anticipated Pilot Mountain being difficult. I’ve done it before, and I knew the mileage preceding it and the extra gear in my pack would make it more difficult than carrying nothing but my water like before, but all this was to be expected, so the challenge was obvious. The challenge I didn’t expect came in the form of calf cramps and shaky knees that made me feel like the biggest novice on the whole trail. I had to actively pay attention to my balance for every step upward because I was afraid I would fall over.
Was I a much weaker hiker than I had been led to believe? Did I let people hype me up too much, giving myself a greater sense of confidence than I should’ve been allowed? I thought about Mr.Loeb, a true mountaineer, and how much of the beauty he might’ve derived from these mountains came from how they would test every hiker without bias, allowing no one to summit who didn’t earn it. This was a place where you either proved yourself or you didn’t finish, and at times I wondered if I would be able to finish.
I had never hiked this section before, so I had no expectation for how long the climb would take. It wasn’t awful in itself, but I allowed my mind to slip and made it awful, which made the climb much more rigorous. This is the moment I most appreciate from the ALT.
I made my way across the road and up the mountain beside Black Balsam. This climb made me feel like I had stepped back in time. The roots stretched all over the trail, often being used as hand holds to pull myself further up. There was nothing to be heard but wind and my breath, air flowing through the world as it flowed through me. The root system that stretched up the mountainside was inviting. It was as if the trees themselves were extending hands to held carry me to the top.
Once atop the series of rough climbs, the ALT intersected the Mountains to Sea Trail, another trek on my bucket list. I strayed from the trail shortly to see if there were any cliff faces hiding behind the pines, and boy was I right. The dense thicket opened up immediately (pictured below) to raging winds that tried to push me to my back as if it were not permissible for me to stand atop the cliff edge. The valley descended on my left, making a wall that shielded me from the side, but the right was opened at full scale and for the first time on this adventure the sheer massiveness of the Appalachian Mountains was revealed to me. The mountains rolled on beyond the perception of my eyes, and and the further I looked the deeper they began hiding behind that iconic blue mist. It’s no wonder why this place has captured my heart so entirely.
I made my way back to the trail and rode it over a rolling ridge line that cut through rocky flats and various pine thickets. At one point the pines got so dense that I would have to strafe sideways to identify the next blaze. It didn’t take very long to get out though, and this is where I hit my next checkpoint- my car.
As soon as I saw the sun reflecting on that little red Mazda through the pines, I could no longer contain myself. This was a huge landmark along the trail. I left it at the Black Balsam parking area the night before, and that was only thanks to my amazing mother who was willing to drive to the parkway in the middle of the night because I had to wait until I was off work to drop it off. Huge shoutout to her!
I climbed on top of my car and laid down for a moment. I could feel the past eight or nine hours of continuous climbing in the numbness that consumed my legs now that I wasn’t standing on them. It actually felt really good. It felt like I had accomplished something.
A small group of hikers I had passed earlier that day told me that there were water refills at the first shelter (which was now long gone) and by the Black Balsam parking lot. I had been completely out for the last mile-and-a-half, and I was more than ready to drown myself in some refreshing mountain spring water straight from the spigot, but that was only if I could find it – and I couldn’t. After about ten or fifteen minutes of looking where I had been told the water was, I began to get frustrated over lost time. I asked some hikers that were just getting off the trail if they knew where it was, but they didn’t know either. That’s when my first experience with trail magic began. There names were Rowan and Mary, and without a moment’s thought they went to their car and pulled out an armful of water bottles to load into my bag. It wasn’t glaringly hot outside, I hadn’t been left without a drink for an extended period of time, and I certainly wasn’t in a situation where I couldn’t turn back and go acquire more water, but that simple act of kindness meant the world to me. It meant I could continue my journey down the trail, and I was and still am so appreciative for that.
I thanked the couple and made my way up Black Balsam renewed once more. I passed a young man named Ben just below the summit, and he told me he had walked the Art Loeb with his father the year before. He gave me an encouraging fist bump, and told me I only had about ten miles to go. Wait… ten miles? According to my GPS, I had already walked twenty-six, almost twenty-seven miles that day. The end of the trail should be much closer than Ben told me, so I chalked it up to him simply remembering wrong.
The summit of Black Balsam came easy after making my across Pilot Mountain and the climb onto the parkway earlier, so I picked up my pace once again and tried to beat nightfall to the terminus. The entire evening was spent trudging along trenches and burrows that rolled across an endless sea of balds. The panoramic views of the mountain range filled my spirit with vigor and appreciation for the place I get to call home. This is truly home.
A few more miles were passed in time, and I descended down onto the last stretch of the trail – The Shining Rock Wilderness.
I was now in completely unfamiliar territory. Not once had I ever been in these woods, but with my GPS mileage having already exceeded thirty miles, I imagined myself terribly close to the end. My head filled with imaginary conversations about how I overcame the difficulties the ALT had to offer. I could hear friends congratulating me for crushing the whole thing in one day (though, I have to admit, marathon runners can and have done multiple times), and I would invite them to come do it with me again some day later.
It should be no surprise that this is not at all how things went.
Night began to fall as I passed boulders of crystal quarts and other brilliant stones. One boulder sat amidst the valley floor as big as a school bus, and rays of light beamed from the evening sunset, allowing me to look into the heavens for but a moment before both the rock and I alike were consumed in darkness.
Back on went my headlamp, and I began to move at a slow jog, determined to complete what I had set out to do. Rhodie thickets scraped at my pants and arms as I barreled down one mountainside and up the next, trying to hold me still, but I kept moving.
Blazes were getting scarcer and scarcer on this end of the trail, and the white seemed less obvious through the beam of my headlamp. I had gotten off track just once before, and I corrected my wrong turn having only lost about twenty minutes. In the darkness, however, I had no frame of reference other than the width of the trail to keep me moving in the right direction. My field of vision got even tighter as the clouds moved in and consumed the starlit sky above. Now the green tunnels I had been walking all day turned black, and I was forced to realize I wouldn’t be making it to my destination that night.
I set up camp on a small rock exposure that had tree coverage on both sides. I thought the trees would help to block the wind from cutting through me, and my rain fly would protect me from the rain as I slept in my hammock until dawn. Everything was standard procedure to me by this point, but mother nature has no standard.
Just after midnight a massive gust of wind ripped through the trees, turning my rain fly into a parachute and ripping my stakes out of the ground. The wind cut through my sleeping bag and began rocking me violently. I reached for a root to stabilize myself only to be drenched in the downpour that was sweeping over the mountain and the gallon of water that had puddled up in my rain fly. It splashed down right onto my face and slid inside my bag, soaking me to the bone. My shelter and my warmth was now compromised. Every article of clothing I brought with me, save an extra pair of sock, was now completely saturated with water and the winds were getting even stronger. It was time to make a break for it.
I decided that if I couldn’t figure out where to go forward nor how far I would have to hike that it was best if I just embraced the cold and walked back where I had come from. I was prepared to cross all of the Shining Rock Wilderness, the rolling balds, and Black Balsam to get back to my car and get to the warmth and safety of my home as efficiently as I could. My pace was slow, accented by twitching calves that weren’t prepared to be moving again so soon and constant shivering that made it even harder to maintain my balance as I traversed mudslides that were a walking trail mere hours earlier.
Every branch that offered me balance along my way came at the cost of another shower falling from the treetops above. The mud insisted that I travel not uphill but further down, slowly tugging on my feet in an effort to send me down into the valley. It wasn’t but a quarter mile of crawling and falling that I realized I had gotten off trail – again.
The windstorm had dropped trees where I had previously been, and so the blazes that faced one direction now faced another. Many were gone altogether, buried amidst rhodies and fallen trees that guided me off the beaten path. The path behind me was lost entirely. The path in front of me was enigmatic, winding towards places I didn’t know and running distances I couldn’t guess. I had now been subjected to the wind and rain for two hours, and I couldn’t figure out how to get out.
I threw in the towel and did what I never thought I would have to do -I called search and rescue.
One county transferred me to another, one directory sent me to another, and I began explaining my situation and location as best I could. I forced myself to speak slowly so that chattering in my teeth didn’t make me incomprehensible, and I was instructed to make shelter as best I could and wait until the rescue squad was ready to deploy people to assist me.
I wrapped my tarp around a fallen tree, giving myself both a dry place to lie down and protection from the rain pouring down from above. I wrapped my torso and legs in my soaked sleeping bag and waited. That was all I could do. I sat encased in complete darkness with nothing but the wind cutting through the trees and the rain slamming against my tarp. I held the tarp as tight as I could so that it wouldn’t fly away. So tight, in fact, that I could feel the pressure coming off every rain droplet as it crashed against my primitive shelter and slid down the mountain towards my boots.
The phone rang, and I was instructed to try to sleep until 4:00 am, then call for them. They said they needed more time, but they didn’t tell me for what. I was being tested. The thing is, it’s not safe for anyone to be traversing mountains at night in a storm, regardless of their training. They wanted to see if they could avoid endangering any of their staff, and as much as it hurt to realize that, I understood and agreed completely. I got myself into this mess, and I should be the one to make sure I can get through it.
I wasn’t injured and I wasn’t in any immediate danger aside from my temperature consistently dropping, so I made a gameplan. I would lie down for thirty minute intervals, then pace back and forth for ten, holding my now-soaked rain jacket above my head to protect me from taking on even more water. I did this for five consecutive hours. Close my eyes and think about the morning, kick the puddle off my shelter, take on water as I stood up from the shelter, and then get on the trail. Pace to the fallen log then back to the rock outcropping five times, kick the puddle off my shelter, crawl under the tarp, lie my sleeping bag over my torso, and close my eyes. Over and over this pattern repeated. After the third or fourth time it began feeling religious, as if my sole purpose in the world was pacing and sleeping. Not a single step in the process varied because I more time walking meant more wind exposure. Taking my tarp with me to protect from the wind meant more rain exposure when I set the tarp back over the log. More time sleeping meant harder shivering, and too much time in my sleeping bag meant too much time in direct contact with water, but not having the sleeping bag at all meant taking on too much water in my clothes where it dripped from holes in the tarp. So the pattern was set in motion and I refused to vary from it in the least.
Morning came. It was about 9:00 am when the rain stopped, and I was instructed at this time to call once more. Kyle, the man I was now in contact with after their shift change, sent me a picture of my location and my directions forward via text message. “Ok I’m gonna need u to walk camp Daniel Boone is about 4 miles out down hill // As opposed to about 9 uphill to black balsam[.]” I couldn’t agree more.
I went through my standard procedure of getting out of my shelter once more, rolled the tarp up, and made my way down trail once more. After traversing fallen trees, more mudslides, and slick rock for the first thirty minutes or so, I found myself at a flat where a traveler’s campsite lied. “When u get to that spot there is a trail that cuts off south there goes down the mountain you’ll need to take that then just stay straight[.]” Yessir.
Straight I went. I nibbled on some banana chips as the walking became more manageable, hoping to bring myself some energy that I had lost from the long night before. The shivering never stopped, but the walking certainly made me feel a bit warmer. I walked for about three-and-a-half hours in an enclosed section of the valley. There were no landmarks for miles, just the hill falling sharply to the right, rising to the left, and a few streams that the storm had created along my way. For all I knew, I could’ve been walking in place for those last few miles, nature’s massive treadmill used to play pranks on unsuspecting hikers, but I did eventually make it.
The camp appeared instantly around a bend, but the trail makes you patiently approach it, snaking sideways and winding down the mountainside leaving me impatient and ready to finish. I waved goodbye and good luck to a group of hikers in passing, gave them the same information about water sourcing that I had received, took a picture of the terminus, and sat in contemplation as the rescue squad sent a sheriff deputy to come pick me up. I had just as many mixed emotions about the trail then as I do now, and I felt defeated both by my inability to finish it in my time frame and by the way the wind and rain had stripped me of any confidence I had as an adventurer. I was a mess. A hungry, shivering, wet and defeated mess. My trip’s conclusion brought me none of the joy and accomplishment that I was so excited for. I may have conquered Pilot Mountain, crossed through valleys and over mountaintops, exchanged friendly advice and kinship among those I passed, but it wasn’t I who had won, it was the Art Loeb.
I sat in that state for about forty minutes until Sgt.Joe Carter arrived to pick me up. He was a friendly man with a long history in the department. I pulled my fingers out of his car’s heater vents long enough to shake his hand and ask him of his experience with the Sheriff’s office. We swapped tales for the entirety of the ride back to my car, and, naturally, he declined my offer to buy him lunch as a thank you for helping me.
I got back into town and was immediately met with friends of all sorts who I bumped into while I was devouring my lunch by the riverbed. They had been following me along the trail via social media, and I received all the high-fives, hugs, and hiking propositions that I had been hoping for.
Maybe I’ll try again soon.