The flying sausage decided we needed to drive to Laurel Gap. By the time you deal with I-40, Heintooga road and Maggie Valley it’s 3 hours from my house.
But I was fortunate to have the company of one Grady. We ascended the Balsam Mountain Trail.
It’s 1500 ft and 4.2 mi to the shelter, in the light sprinkling rain. And the shelter was full. Which made me glad I brought my tent. Snug we were in the shadow of the hemlocks. Away from the snoring masses.
There to greet us was Jimmy Dean, Steve Mcqueen, Dwight and Robert Carver. And 10 other of our closest friends, who all bedded down at 7:30.
Hiker midnight came super early at Laurel Gap. But not for me and Grady and Dwight. We greeted the stars well into Highlander midnight.
As a result of Dwight’s late night activities, he was unable to complete their anticipated loop,and Sunday morning found them dependent upon me and Grady to ferry them back around to their car at Big Creek.
But not before a stop at one of our favorite dining establishments in the Maggie Valley. Martin would be proud.
It was a quick hit weekend trip but a lot of fun was had.
The weekend before I was at the Obed for Trail days. This is a place where a lot of volunteers put in countless hours to maintain a national Park service resource. I’ve been able to participate in many Trail days over the years. This year we put up the new sign for the parking at South clear.
The East Tennessee climbers coalition does a magnificent job.
There were probably at least 70 volunteers that day. Projects completed include trail work, litter pick up and of course the South clear parking lot project. Then of course we had some climbing that afternoon.
I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of days. It was also the only dry weekend I had in two months.
I would like to speak a little bit more about the covid. Many of you know that I had a breakthrough infection after vaccination. I was fully diagnosed with covid pre vaccination in December. That was 2 weeks of flu like symptoms, and complete isolation over the holidays. In addition to missing work and an AT hiking trip with Brian.
So I was first in line to get vaccinated with moderna in February. You may recall that I started getting sick at Richard’s hike a couple of weeks ago. And this bout was worse than the first. They say the chances of getting reinfected are almost astronomical. Well I guess you can say I’m good at beating the odds. I shudder to think at what may have happened had I not been vaccinated. Actually I know what would have happened. I would have been on a ventilator at UT hospital in a hallway probably.
A very good friend of mine lost her mother this week to the virus. She was un vaccinated. 1500 people per day are dying from this virus. So far we’ve lost 600,000 Americans. Yet we still hold super spreader events like UT football games. People still argue about the efficacy of masking. And folks who have no problem taking polio and many other vaccines, suddenly think they’re going to be computer chipped with the covid version.
I still have people say things to me like I probably got the covid because of my altitude exposure. What they’re really doing is trying to find some reason that a healthy person like myself would catch this plague. And they want to be able to fit the Fox news narrative that people who get covid really have underlying problems.
If you’re watching Fox news and News Max, understand that the people spouting this propaganda to you are vaccinated. So good luck with your ivermectin.
Richard and Keene tell stories of their many years and 900 miles through the Smokies around a rainy camp in Elkmont on Saturday evening.
We woke early Saturday morning to embark on a shuttle ride up to Clingmans dome so we could drop down Sugarland Mountain trail 14 miles. My allergies were giving me a hard time but once I got on the trail things felt wonderful. I believe there were 12 of us on the shuttle.
The weather was fantastic and the views breathtaking. I enjoyed listening to Laura speak of Richard’s selflessness on her hikes with her. He was always first in camp to start a fire and provide food for everyone, as was the case this time. I concur, he’s a pretty good dude. This meetup crew is a varied group. I got to know them through JD but mostly of late, through Richard and Kelsie, which is how they met. I had to dig deep to find this, from when I finished my miles many years ago. http://southernhighlanders.com/SETTLETHIS.htm
Richard had tasked me and Patrick to find the start of the manway up from the Chimneys which intersected Sugarland mountain. I had written a story for the Farragut/Northshore Magazine about this offtrail several years ago. Here is a link to that. http://southernhighlanders.com/Chimneyscan.htm I’m going to post a link from past Highlander epics when we did this.
However, Richard pulling up the rear, never arrived. And after 45 minutes Patrick, Laura and I shoved off on down the trail.
I was sick here and didn’t even know it. Much more on that later.
The wildfire went from here clean over to the bullhead. I had not walked this trail since.
We gave up on waiting for the rest of the team as Patrick, Laura and I were running down the trail. Kelsie was with the other group helping Keene finished his last miles over on Meigs Creek.
We finally got to the bottom of Sugarland Mountain after about 13 miles. Laura was sitting on a log waiting. Storm clouds were gathering so it was decided that Patrick and I would hike two miles around into Elkmont and retrieve a rescue vehicle. And then the sky opened up.
Big time. I should have just walked through the creek into the campsite. Instead we shortcutted through the Wonderland hotel, or what remains of it.
Guess who pulls into the campsite? I feel it appropriate to post a link to when JD and I first met on the trail many years ago. He was over on LeConte doing some miles as we were sweating down from the “dome”. Still the issue remained of rescuing everyone over on Sugarland Mountain. So we assembled a convoy and headed back that way. After I changed into dry clothing of course. By now I was feeling less good than before. I thought that the hike had just worn me down now we’d done almost 15 miles.
Keen and his group beat us back by several hours. A big party was going to happen that evening with barbecue, buck dancing and all sorts of shenanigans. We had probably 23 people there.
I could feel myself starting to go downhill. Those allergies were really kicking my butt
It started sprinkling off and on. As we socialized and visited around camp, our companion, the rain, paid visit. I can feel myself sinking lower and lower into my outdoor chair. After dinner I indulged the need to retire to my tent. This was about the time the dancing portion of Richard’s party initiated. I’m very proud of them for finishing their miles in such style. If you are interested in renting Richard for the weekend he is available for weddings and Bat Mitzvahs. His stage name is Gen. Beauregard and he will entertain your family, work gathering or bachelorette party in true Southern style. That includes hatchetry, woodsmanship and feats of strength. Here is a publicity photo for those interested.
I awakened early the next morning. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was more than allergies. When Kelsie came out of her tent, I informed her of my intention to stay distant from the group. This meant skipping the much anticipated breakfast for which we had contributed provisions to include Benton’s bacon.
I was achy and not from hiking. My head was swollen, my sinuses enlarged. This feeling was all too familiar. I packed up camp and collapsed in Kelsie’s truck. We drove back home with me fully masked. The rest of that afternoon was a complete wash. I could hardly move from the couch. I knew what had to happen the following morning. I was first in line at the health department after waiting 30 minutes to be told that they could not covid test me as I had health insurance. Not that they couldn’t put a sign out there like they did the time before. The question everyone needs to be asking themselves is why do we not have free covid testing? This is after all a pandemic. My bill for lab services only through my family Dr is unknown. But I have a 6k$ deductible.
After being turned away from the health department which tested me in December and confirmed my original covid diagnosis, I laid myself at the feet of my primary care physician and begged them to work me in.
The following day I had the results of the PCR test. Covid positive. Again. I was fully vaccinated in March and you will recall that I was fully sick in December. 4 days of flu-like symptoms. Another quarantine, and week’s worth of unpaid missed work. Yes I blame Bil Lee, our derelict governor. He’s too busy pandering to the gun and Fox news crowd to care about the health of his citizens. I developed what they called a breakthrough case. Lucky me. Had I not been vaccinated I think I would probably be on a ventilator in the hospital. 95% of the people on ventilators in hospitals are unvaccinated.
So that’s my weekly rant, oh wait, no it isn’t. You may have heard about the parking fee for Laurel falls trailhead. I certainly have from everyone. So the Southern Forest Watch sent a letter to superintendent Ca$h outlining our concerns. The comment period seems to have been shortened.
This is of course to avoid capturing negative sentiment about the proposal. We’ve been on this rodeo before. They’re just greasing the wheels for more fees for parking at Alum cave and elsewhere. But they need the money to pave Cades Cove road again. (not a pothole on that road, been riding it on the bike on Wednesdays).
Please be safe, GET VACCINATED, wear a mask indoors and quit shaking hands etc. So far, I appear to have infected no one. And we did contact all the folks at the Elkmont event. Praise to the Lord. Understand that if you are afraid of the vaccine, then think about what your children will say when you are on your last breath at UT Hospital as one of the dying unvaccinated. This stuff is serious, it is NO fun and very uncomfortable. I’m so appreciative of Kelsie and Hilary Burgin for looking after me with groceries etc during this second infection.
I had a piece published in CityView this week and hope you get to take a look. As you know we have been climbing here for a while and I wanted to showcase the work done by the East TN Climbers Coalition. Thanks to Rebecca Whalen at CityView. https://cityviewmag.com/black-mountain/
Peace. Now for some music. We’re going to go way back to the 70s for this timely piece of masterful guitar/vocal work by Greg Lake.
Don’t let the beautiful photograph fool you, we climbed 4,000 plus feet in the monsoon rain to get to Mount Sterling on Friday.
You may recall my friend Marina from the first Gap C&O bike trip. She was riding solo from her hometown in Pittsburgh via Smolensk Russia.
I was waiting for the news report of the bomb.
Apparently the only bomb was a cloud that dumped all of its contents on us as we climbed and climbed and climbed.
She’s a good sport, but Marina is a former Mountain guide in the Caucasus of Russia.
This is a person who rode by herself from Pittsburgh and followed us all the way to DC then turned around and rode all the way back.
During the times of respite from the rain we had some pretty views.
We were joined by a couple and their four year old daughter who climbed that mountain, also in the pouring rain. That little girl is one tough bird. I never heard her cry or complain one time. Most people I know don’t climb Baxter Creek up hill anyway. But this little girl marched on in her crocs, smiling the entire way.
Bryn and Marina were fast friends.
The next day we took off down Mount Sterling ridge and came to the Swallow fork Trail. It probably would have been wise for us to drop down Swallow Fork instead of taking on the rest of Sterling ridge, Balsam mountain and Gunter fork.
But Marina wanted to do some mileage. And why not? She came all the way to Tennessee so I wanted to make sure she got the full Smokies experience. We had barely set foot on the Gunter fork trail right up from Laurel Gap shelter when the second monsoonal deluge began.
One of my favorite swimming holes is at the bottom of Gunter Fork. Marina took full advantage of it as we were already soaked to the bone. It was one of the weekends where you forgo any notion of walking in dry shoes, socks or boots.
We made it out of the Smokies alive in time to get back the following day to enjoy a bike tour around the city of Knoxville. Of course we were dogged by a rain during that event as well.
I hope everyone is well. Let’s enjoy some music. Can you believe this is Paul McCartney?
There’s always a place I can find my pet little copperheads. It’s down at the bridge in the lower Muir valley area.
The camping is good at Land of the Arches and it’s near my favorite climbing.
There are routes over there that are 75 ft tall. The Corbin sandstone is the best climbing you will encounter on the East coast.
Kelsey did good leading on some 5.8.
Because they’re only two of us I don’t have a lot of photography.
The weather was ideal, it cooled off to make the slab perfectly sticky. I’ve had so much good fortune at the Red River gorge.
Peace to all as summer rages, the hornets nest was close to the ground. That usually implies a cold winter.
To see a better version of this photo, go to my instagram link here. https://www.instagram.com/p/CRu1XQbMu0h/
As you can see, we had a great time helping Abby finish her last mile in the park She is a real go-getter, just like Kelsie. These gals were super-motivated and did all their miles in record time. Kelsie was about six months and Abby about seven or so. We ascended Trillium behind the Llamas.
On Sunday, we hit the Obed and climbed Tarantella. Thank goodness we had Scotty as our rope gun. I can’t lead that one right now, or forever, for that matter. It’s the pumpiest route at Lily Bluff at my level. We enjoyed a nice swim afterwards.
Tarantella is a 5.10 and it’s so super pumpy. Kind of surprised we had the bluff to ourselves.
Kelsie heads up the infamous rocking chair. 5.9
And, on Friday, Kelsie and I took off for a paddle down part of the Little River. We put in at the Water plant in Alcoa and floated to Rockford, What a delight to be on the river with no company other than cranes and heron.
I had a great time hiking with Marc Anthony and Nathan Sparks, publisher of Cityview Magazine. Some of you may know Marc from the Marc and Kim radio show. Marc did a wonderful piece here and I really appreciate his time and that of editor Rebekka Whalen.
Mountaineer John Quillen shares tales of climbing the world’s 8,000-meter peaks
We stand at the foot of the Schoolhouse Gap Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I look to John Quillen and say, “Can you handle this or do I need to get the oxygen tank out of the truck?” His bemused look was one of, I’ve been to the top of Everest and this trail has the word Schoolhouse in it. I’ll be fine.
John Quillen is from Morristown. He is an adolescent drug counselor in Knoxville, an everyday guy, 54 years old, a typical ‘80s kid. He got in the same trouble we all did growing up, “playing Tarzan in the woods and getting poison ivy in unspeakable places,” he says. “Always that kid going out into the woods and not coming back at supper time.” His first drives as a 16-year-old were into the Smoky Mountains to car camp. John is unassuming, quiet, and soft spoken.
John has flirted with death and dismemberment while climbing three of the 14 8,000-meter peaks around the world. For the Americans in the audience, that’s 26,000 feet; your last airline flight was just a little bit higher than that. And these 8,000-meter peaks are in something called the “Death Zone,” elevations where there isn’t sufficient oxygen to sustain human life. Helicopters can’t fly there because the air is so thin. But John? John spent almost an hour atop Everest with only his Sherpa, when the average stay at the summit is just long enough to get your picture taken. He has almost lost body parts while climbing these 8,000-meter peaks because the oxygen is so low, the temperatures even lower.
“Being from Tennessee, we’ve all had the experience of walking in the woods on a cold, snowy day and having our fingers get cold at low elevation,” he says. “When you walk, it warms up [but] the higher you go, the more viscous the blood gets, which means less blood flow, which means you are killing the cells at the end of your fingers and toes. And for me, that was about seven or eight fingers and five or six toes”. When he returned from Everest, John spent 10 different days in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber at UT to save them.
I’m going to be honest. Everything I have watched and read about Mount Everest has been about tragic events and the dead bodies scattered across the landscape; it pervades my thoughts about extreme altitude mountain climbing. As a matter of fact, just days after my hike and interview with John, two Everest climbers died. I have always been curious as to why someone would be willing to put their life on the line for a hobby.
“When you step foot on any peak or climb any rock, it’s not about death; it’s just about the allure of the mountains and the call of the mountains,” John says. “For me, it’s just being in an outdoor space and the view.”
Long-distance runners achieve something called a runner’s high. Mountaineers like John describe the experience of sitting atop the world in a different way, equating it to something more profound: “They opened the velvet gate to heaven and I got to step in for a few minutes.” After hearing this sort of explanation, I think maybe I’ll consider it. Maybe.
Let’s get back to the frostbite thing. Mountaineers are often faced with this bizarre decision while on some of their expeditions. They arrive at a point of their ascent where they have to decide whether to continue up the mountain and return home with possibly fewer extremities, or turn around and head for the safety of base camp, extremities intact. John’s been there, and even in the short time we’ve spent talking, it’s pretty clear which choice he’s more apt to make.
“On Everest in 2018, I was at a decision point on my ascent where I knew my foot was already frostbitten, and this was with oxygen and with pretty good weather for Everest, only 20 below zero. That’s not bad,” he says. “But I had to kind of make that decision of [whether I was] going to push on knowing that my toe is going to be frostbitten again or turn around. [So I] pushed on.”
It takes a lot to get to the summit. Months of physical conditioning, in fact. But when a mountaineer arrives, it’s a time-stopping experience. And from the way John talks, it seems to be that way no matter how many mountains you’ve climbed.
“My ascent was so atypical in so many ways,” he says of Everest. “I spent 45 minutes on the Everest summit; no one ever does that. No one ever gets that opportunity. And my summit photos are me and my Sherpa, no one else was on the summit. Well, there’s a reason for that. It has to do with my age and how late I was getting to the summit. Everyone had summited two or three hours before I did. So I had the whole peak to myself for 45 minutes.”
It’s the classic tortoise and hare: “It pays to be the old man.” He tells me later: “When I saw the true summit, I thought there’s nothing that’s going to keep me from the summit. I can’t describe to you any kind of pain whatsoever until the descent.”
Right. The descent. The treacherous journey back down to safety, and one that is just as dangerous as the journey up. It’s the point where John says “all your senses kind of re-enter your body and you realize, okay, you better get it together because this is where it’s going to go bad, if it goes bad”.
John knows bad. He’s been a part of a disaster that almost took the life of a Sherpa, the Tibetan natives that are regarded as elite mountaineers and local geographical experts that guide climbers to the top of Everest.
“We were ascending the Lhotse face, which is the steepest 45-degree ice wall part, not the most dangerous, just the steepest part of Everest, and a rock came down and hit two Sherpa,” he says. Sherpa don’t wear helmets, he continues telling me. They wear a strap across their forehead to offset the “gigantic refrigerator-size loads” they carry up the mountain. Staring at the man’s skull, cracked wide open, John had no choice but to get involved. “I’m not a medical person. I’m not a blood and guts person. And sitting there, looking at somebody with their brains, literally, right there wasn’t my cup of tea, but we had to bandage him up.”
Later he tells me about his expedition in Pakistan, on Broad Peak in the Karakoram Mountain Range, another 8,000-meter peak. “It was a crap show from the very beginning,” he says, “…we were [rappelling] down from camp three to camp two and [my partner] missed a clip and fell a hundred feet.” John couldn’t see what truly happened until he got down to his friend, whose leg was a mangled mess. “We were two days from base camp. We were on vertical slopes. It was getting late in the day, and I was going into panic mode because I just did not know what to do with him. There was no-one there by this time…nobody around.”
“I had to splint his leg and then I had to put him in a sleeping pad and lower him hand by hand for hours on a fixed rope while I was clipped in, without me coming off the fixed rope,” he says. He finally got to a point where he could call for help, on one of the most vertical points, and a team came and helped him get his friend to base camp. “I was real worried. We didn’t get him out of there for five days, but he survived it. But three of my teammates did not.”
John’s teammates, mountaineers who had helped get John’s friend to safety, went a different route on their ascents and got lost. “While we were getting home, I’m getting news about my three teammates getting lost on the mountain.” John says there was no word from the trio for days. “Eventually we lost all contact with them and they were never heard from again. It was the biggest attempted rescue on Broad Peak…You asked me earlier if I ever thought I’d give it up? I definitely took the next year out.”
The legendary mountaineer George Mallory is famously quoted as replying to the question, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” with a winking, “Because it’s there.” Over the last few decades, Everest has become what some refer to as a “commercial climb”, as anyone with $50,000 can jump in the conga line and head up with a guide. But what some don’t realize about climbing high peaks is that taking your selfie at the summit of some of the highest points on Earth might also include daring rescues and the possibility of leaving some of your crew behind to die on the mountain. It’s a risk not easily taken, but one understood by mountaineers, like John.
Throughout the interview, I become more focused on the physical price you pay to climb to a point on Earth where flora and fauna don’t exist. Laid back John Quillen will always guide the conversation back to the positive aspects of why he climbs Denali, Rainier and other peaks I’ve never heard of and need him to spell when he says them.
“The freedom of being on a remote peak…it’s thinking you’re one of the few people to ever set foot on a certain piece of ground,” he says. “I mean there’s something to that, that gets into our pioneer spirit.”
When John’s head isn’t literally in the clouds, he spends a lot of time hiking and protecting the Great Smoky Mountains, working with and battling against the Park Service for your rights to access all parts of the park for free.
“I go to the Himalayas, I paid $11,000 to climb Mount Everest. I don’t mind that; I don’t live there. I’d like to see that go back into the local economy,” he says. “But I don’t feel like we need to make mountains so [financially] prohibitive, especially here, where it’s going to price the single mom out of taking her kids into the backcountry having to pay $24 a night to sleep on the ground. This park needs to be open.”
If you want to walk all 800-plus miles of the trails in the park, John can help. “I’m on the support crew for trail finishers. People are trying to get their ‘Maps’, which means they are trying to finish them all. I’ll sherpa their stuff into campsites because you need refreshments after a long hike. Plus, it’s a good workout hauling stuff uphill.”
John Quillen can often be found climbing the Crag at Ijams Nature Center, and he’s a story teller.
Look for the quiet guy.
Ask him about Mount Everest and have a seat.
Yes, that’s me with the sexy legs at the end of the C&O Towpath again. You may be wondering why I went back. Well, Kelsie was itching to do her first bikepacking journey and I wanted to spend a little more time on this trail. So, off we headed to our nation’s capital and departed from Georgetown, heading north this time. Right off the bat we came across a deer, so close to the city. It was a good omen, we would encounter many.
Again, more sexy leg photos. People just can’t seem to get enough.
Mile Zero, We found it with no problem.
Sights like this were missed first time around. Really spectacular set of waterfalls here.
Our goal was to do about 50 miles per day. Our first night of camping was peaceful and we were joined by two fellows finishing their journey. They had an interesting story about a bear encounter along the GAP portion. Apparently one of them awoke during the night to see a bear dragging their bike off as it had food in the pannier. We took necessary backcountry precautions and hung food nightly.
This is my rig. It is a full suspension mountain bike with adapted panniers. In order to complete 187 miles with three nights of camping, it needed to haul 30 pounds of gear. You may notice that I replaced wide mountain tires with skinny Shwalbe Hurricanes. They performed flawlessly on both journeys with zero flats. Zero. I don’t necessarily recommend a full suspension bike, hardtails are better. It’s less weight and energy required. But I can’t afford a gravel bike presently. It would have to do. The C&O is essentially flat. Weight is not really an issue in those circumstances.
One of our more interesting deer encounters involved this young buck who got between us and a woman walking in our direction. We both stopped but the deer had no escape route. He opted for the canal. With no problems he swam across and climbed the vertical bank. Kelsie lost count at 14 deer, I believe. But the most unusual episode came on our final day. I was behind Kelsie, (aka the Kingston Hauler, since that is what she hold a local legend status on with Strava) and was attempting to pass when a fawn emerges, or should i say, attempts to emerge from the thicket between her and the canal. The deer starts her jump and nearly brushes Kelsie’s arm before thinking better of the attempt.
Harper’s Ferry. We locked our bikes and carried all our pannier bags up and over the bridge into W. Va. It was time for lunch.
We had miles to go and dared not tarry as Antietam Battlefied awaited.
Quite a bit off trail we rode through Sharpsburg and reached the infamous Sunken Road shown here. 5000 soldiers died in a hail of gunfire and constant artillery. Being a bit of a history buff, this Sunken Road and it’s imagery have haunted me through the years.
It was a solemn experience and worth the uphill detour. We overnighted at a place called Big Woods camp which found me swimming in the Potomac and the arrival of our new friend, Luther, from Cookeville.
Her favorite part. (Not looking at my backside)
Kelsie is a pro on her first ride. We had the Paw Paw tunnel to negotiate this day.
Hey, those sexy legs don’t wash themselves!
Our last day was planned to be a campout in the final site outside of Cumberland, Maryland. However, whenn we arrrived, the temperature had spiked to 97 degrees. The campsite was utterly unappealing and no access to the river was gained. So we pushed on towards town and shower. The next morning we caught a one and a half hour late Amtrak train back to D.C. Upon arrival in D.C. we had more riding to do back toward Georgetown and mile zero. We passed the nation’s Capital, White House, Lincoln Memorial and Smithsonian. It was now only 94 degrees. Glad we were to finally reach the vehicle and start heading back to TN. We overnighted in Stanton, VA where I celebrated my birthday in this magnificent little town. The C&O was a grand excursion, I highly recommend.
I needed to do a couple of days worth of work in my office before taking off for some climbing at the Red River Gorge in Ky. Everyone knows that I am a big fan of this classic sandstone here. Kelsie and Scotty had never been so I was happy to accompany them, along with Jordan Harris, to my favorite rock in the world. We had Fall weather in the midst of summer and spent the fourth at Muir Valley and PMRP pulling that beautiful sandstone. It is something to behold.
There were more than one of these!
Scotty B sends a 10.
Jordan starts off on a weird little traverse.
Now, let’s start this week off with some tunage.
The weather looked quite specious. Rain showers throughout the day with the occasional heavy thunderstorm was predicted for this part of Virginia.
We arrived at the Elk Garden parking lot to a soaking storm. The flying sausage pulled in with his Entourage. They were eager to hit the trail for 5 and 1/2 mi ascent to the base of Mount Rogers summit, the highest point in Virginia. Kelsie and I opted to wait out this round of storm. It would last almost 2 hours, but when it finally broke and our radar indicated such, we rode it like the wind.
Knowing this would be short lived, we opted for the horse trail which diverted from the AT. I was reminded of having been here in October when Frank and I did our 80 mi section hike to Atkins.
The rain barely touched us as we sloshed through the trail now turned into a creek. A great canopy of trees kept us dry. By the time we spotted our first pony, the skies had cleared.
We finally found the Sausage and his group at Rhododendron Gap.
And the Rhodo didn’t disappoint. (Or, as Frank calls it, Rhondo!)
The ponies are a great novelty that draw many many people to the highlands annually
However the longhorn cattle is one I can do without. Especially when at 2:00 in the morning they come stampeding through camp. It gives me flashbacks of the Karakoram and when Brian and I were sitting in our tent which was trampled by ponies. (You can read about it by purchasing a copy of my book, Tempting the Throne Room. ) That’s when I discovered that Jimmy Dean has a fear of bovines. Not sure what the forest service was thinking by allowing this cattle grazing up on top of a bald that already is sufficiently defecated upon.
Among the many great guests that Jimmy brought up, was KO and his wife Paula. Would you believe that her dad was the drummer for Roy Orbison. It was fascinating to hear that story.
We had barely gotten our tents set up when a horrific storm crested the knob of this high point in Virginia. It rained sideways with lightning and all of us were fearful of losing our homes.
When the clouds finally rolled out, we had a beautiful, star lit evening.
Sarah was able to wrangle a fire out of totally soaking wet wood. I have a lot of respect for anyone who knows how to start and tend to fire.
I regret that I forgot to snap a star-scape photo before I went to bed but I passed out pretty hard.
We went back out along the Appalachian Trail to make a complete loop. Sunday was glorious; all the weather we didn’t have the day before.
I realize that Mount Rogers and the Grayson Highlands has been trending of late. The pandemic has brought people into the woods that never even thought of venturing out before.
The bad weather worked in our favor. It kept the crowds to a minimum. I’m thankful for the invitation by Jimmy Deane, the flying sausage. It was good to shoulder a pack again.
On other notes, I have a video on youtube that has no accrued 469,000 views. In other words, gone viral. It is one we made in 2019 as we enjoyed a Safari on the Serengeti. I’m still not certain why it has garnered so much attention but if you watch, you will notice that a hyena shows who is the boss to some cheetahs. If you would like to go on a safari or a climb of Kilimanjaro, please contact me and I will hook you up with the BEST and cheapest trip you can ever imagine. When I say I have a hook-up, you know it is for real. Take a gander and just some of the sights you will see on a safari in Africa. My friend will take you in a private jeep to three different National Parks and you can actually tent camp in the Serengeti with gourmet food. It is a bucket-list life experience. Contact me if you want more information. Africa is open for business for vaccinated folks. EMAIL John
And finally, one of our good backpacking buddies, Gary Duvall, suffered a massive stroke yesterday. If you have any room to pray for him, please do so as his family will be taking him off life support at any time. We have enjoyed many a campfire and trail with him and I can say he is genuinely one of the nicest fellows you would ever meet. He has two boys in addition to his wife. Gary is barely 60 years old with no history of health issues. I know the family would appreciate any good energy you can send his way.
I know there has been little content on this site of late. The main reason is that climbing season arrived I and figured folks were tired of that same photography. It all looks the same after a minute or two. But we also have been putting this adventure together.
This is our bedraggled group, minus Bill and Stewart and Marina. We finished the C&O towpath on a cold blustery afternoon in downtown Georgetown. Left to right, Neil Murphy, Martin Hunley, Bugsy Moran, Lee Whitten and yours truly.
This was a bike packing adventure. The idea came to my head after several discussions with Mark Jones. You may recall he got me involved in this last year with the Katy Trail excursion. So I invited Lee and Neil from Alaska along with Bugsy from Georgia and Martin from New York.
John Davis and Dan were unable to join. Stewart and Bill are two of Brian’s speed demon friends from Georgia who finished the trail a day and a half ahead of us.
This is me with Neil to the left and Lee on the right. It was the missing man formation at the end of the Great Alleghany Passage section.
Bikepacking involves quite a bit of gear. And the logistics are not simple. And in these days of post-pandemia, sometimes gear is difficult to find along with bicycles. That is why I was forced to make do with my full suspension mountain bike. A gravel bike is the preferred conveyance for this excursion. Using a full suspension mountain bike required some modifications and special racks. But it worked out pretty well for me. I recommend the Thule Pack n Pedal system, it is the only one that will allow mounts for 29 inch full suspension systems.
You see my bike weighs 32 lbs empty. Add the rack system plus fully loaded panniers, and that’s about 70 plus pounds. And we have to carry that weight for 350 miles.
We all got a little bit muddy on the last part of the C&O.
Let’s begin our journey in Union station in the heart of our nation’s capital at the Amtrak terminus. After picking up Lee and Neil at the airport we were accompanied by Stewart and Bill. Boxing our bikes and loading them onto the train was quite the ordeal. So much so it also dissuades me from ever wanting to ride the train up there again. But the train ride was pleasant and followed our path. Through the windows we could see the varying towns and campsites we would be later occupying.
After arriving at Pittsburgh and unloading our boxed bicycles we had a short night’s rest and got up in a monsoon to start our 60 mile first day. We met Martin at the beginning point of the GAP trail as he came down from New York. I haven’t biked that much in constant rain, probably ever. It quit pouring about 1 hour outside of camp, and I was able to grab this shot. Pedaling in the rain is fun. At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
Our first night camping was behind a grocery store. Not exactly the nature experience we had anticipated, but it was free. Anxious to resume our journey on the great Allegheny Passage the next morning, we were treated to these views along the Youghiogheny river. It was also about this time that Neil and I had a little accident. He was on the bridge and I attempted to pass him when he took and spill and knocked me into the bridge railing. Neither of us were significantly injured and our bikes were fine.
The second day had us riding 50 miles into Confluence.
We stayed at a campsite that a ranger told us would be free of charge. After he departed and we were established camp, a host came in and insisted upon payment .Or perhaps I should say made someone else pay because I refuse to do it. As you could imagine, I had a few words with said camp host over this.
There were a couple of detours that we planned on making along the way and this was an important one. Falling Waters is an architectural icon. It required a shuttle to take us up there but I’m glad we were able to see and experience this oddity. Frank Lloyd Wright apparently stole his ideas from the Chinese. Yes, this is my photo. Fantastic, isn’t it?
That also made for a shorter day. The weather now was very hot; almost 90°. And that’s when Martin had the first of three flat tires. Mechanical issues encountered included Martin’s multiple flat tires, Lee’s broken spokes and then Martin’s broken spokes. I did not have a single flat. Strange but true. On the last day, Martin busted his pannier rack.
We reached the great Continental divide after a day or two of uphill pedaling. It was a gradual ascent.
Shortly thereafter we crossed the Mason-Dixon line.
Frostburg was an interesting stopover for us. Once again, the weather was changing and we decided to stay in a bunkhouse that evening. I highly recommend the Trail Inn. Steve’s rates were very reasonable and that includes a shower. (He is quite a character to boot.) It rained significantly, so that proved a wise decision. After clearing the next morning , we were off for a big descent and the conclusion of the Great Alleghany Passage trail.
(end of GAP, beginning of C&O towpath, or actually the end of it in Cumberland, Maryland) The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, abbreviated as the C&O Canal and occasionally called the “Grand Old Ditch,” operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland. The canal’s principal cargo was coal from the Allegheny Mountains.
The fun part is going down the 1200 ft you gained. It was a fast 20 miles. But we had to be at the bike shop when they opened to fix Lee’s broken spoke. Little did we know he would pop another couple of spokes and end up having to purchase a whole new wheel. What I learned is that it is not a good idea to bring older bicycles on this trip. The two older bicycles are the ones that malfunctioned. I think their wheels had a lot of stress history. It’s not Lee or Martin’s fault. None of us knew or anticipated the amount of stress placed on those back wheels with our heavy loads.
in one of our more unusual animal encounters a doe ran across our path with her fawn. The fawn froze place in the middle of the trail. After snatching some photos, we moved on under the watchful eye of the mama deer. I saw about five good size black snakes, unlimited blue heron and sandhill cranes, 3 billion turtles, pileated woodpecker, groundhogs and probably 30 deer.
This was my home for the night along the Potomoc River. As we settled in, Marina came rolling along to join us for a spell.
We picked up a new friend halfway through the trip, Marina Salnikova. Hailing from Pittsburgh via Smolensk, Russia, she was biking solo from her home to DC. She quickly realized the amazing allure of our fun group and we gladly had her along for the remainder of the journey. Amazing thing about Marina is that once we finished she just turned around and went back towards her house. As of this writing, she has completed her round trip journey. Kudos to Marina. She’s a tough bird. Here she is seen in front of one of the many lockhouses along the C&O. We camped along the Potomoc when she came pedaling in and it was a very hot day. So hot we considered swimming. This was all about to change.
Lest anyone forget what he does for a living, Neil had to paint it on the side of his helmet. Doc. Neil had a couple of wrecks on this trip. The C&O Towpath proved to be very muddy following all the overnight rains. It rained so much we holed up at a Bed and Breakfast (Bay Farms B&B) in Williamsport and that was a wise decision. We had a lot happen there I will discuss around a campfire sometime, but were able to wash some more clothes and de mud ourselves. Jesse was quite a gracious host to our ragged assemblage.
Our plan to stay in Harper’s Ferry was severly thwarted by Memorial Day crowds. I had really looked forward to re visiting this place but it was cold. Very cold. Temps were In the upper 40s and we were all soaked to the bone from 40 miles of riding. We spent an hour and did not carry our bikes and bags up and over the railroad tresle into town. Marina went up there and did recon while we tried to find lodging. There was no room at the inn. We had to go on down the road in hopes of staying at an RV campground.
. It was time for some coffee and spiced cider.
And a warming fire, our first of the trip. We were sorrounded by RV campers but it worked out just fine. I wore every piece of clothing I owned, as did everyone else. To think I had initially considered bringing a light sleeping bag.
One of the many dams along the C&O canal.
You have to weave through Georgetown when you come out of the canal to find the actual start point. It is strange coming into such a big city after being out in the countryside for almost a week. It’s also sad because that meant our journey was concluding. I can’t remember having had such fun and enjoying wonderful company. I think we all needed man time. Marina probably showed up in order to rescue us from ourselves. I was telling someone about the composition of our group and explained that we have all climbed together before. I’ve spent nights in tents with all these people. Through the years we have foended off snow storms, the Taliban, frostbite, broken limbs and much more. We were used to taking care of each other. That is what these adventures are all about. Very grateful to see these guys and experience such a grand adventure. Martin says his total mileage was about 370, mine was a bit less because he had to pedal in Pittsburgh a little further at the beginning.
Mile zero is hidden. But was the end of 350 miles for me. ONe of the great blessings for me and Brian was having his uncle Steve pick us up in Georgetown and escort us to his home where his wife, Katrina, pampered us like royalty. I will never forget their hospitality.
Its been an active outdoor week or so for me and crew. I really appreciate everyone’s comments on our Jeffrey Hell epic from Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. It was as much fun to write as it was to explore. I’m going to skip around some, so forgive me. This is a shot from Look Rock on Friday afternoon. Micah and Frank escorted us back to a place I haven’t climbed in 30 years.
Cat belays Kelsie on this wonderful sandstone face.
Frank and Micah appreciate this hidden gem. We did interrupt a wedding proposal atop the rock inadvertently.
Yesterday found us returning to Black Mountain for some solid Cumberland trail climbing.
I love this place more every time we visit.
Jimmy Deane catches me on Tiches Wall.
We were joined by Scotty and Frank Cook in addition to Micah and Kelsie. A perfect day for climbing.
Good Friday found me, Ronda and Kelsie backpacking into Walnut bottoms for a very chilly night beneath the stars. It was great to return to this place of so many Highlander epics over the decades.
It was crowded up there but we had the best fire for certain, and excellent company. I slept like a baby beside Big Creek that night.
Twixt all this fun was our usual Tuesday climbing which has seen a decided spike in popularity. Add in a couple of road bike excursions and that has left little time for blogging. Easter was tremendous as I enjoyed church and a magnificent dinner prepared by my Mom and Aunt. Just couldn’t ask for a better couple of weeks in E. TN. How fortunate we are to live in this outdoor mecca.
Let’s conclude with the best live version of this song ever done. Because at this point, we are definitely Reelin in the years.