I blame Kerouac.
Mid-life crisis? I don't know. All I can tell you is that in my late 40s I finally discovered the work of Jack Kerouac and The Beats. It wasn't that I hadn't been exposed to them, but whenever I'd start to read ON THE ROAD or any of the other major Kerouac novels, the work would leave me cold and I'd quickly lose interest. Why? Hell if I know! Most people discover his fiction when they're in their teens or early 20s and it all clicks and they get a big dose of his wandering spirit and then they move on. But not me. It took decades before I knew enough to appreciate the poetry of his work.
I have to blame Kerouac for getting me back into the life of wandering the hills as I had when I was a kid. Decades passed while I was married and worked various drudge jobs and raised a son and wrote short stories (that sold) and novels (that did not) and managed to avoid going backpacking. Soon after my son hit his mid-teens I gave ON THE ROAD another shot, and everything fell into place. And then it was THE DHARMA BUMS and I recalled just why it was I used to live so many nights a year sleeping under the stars.
The woods called me back.
It had been some months since my return to the hiking/backpacking scene when I decided to bag some of our highest peaks here in North Carolina. The best place to hit a number of peaks in excess of 6,000 feet (what we call our "sixers") was along the Black Mountain Crest Trail that leads from Mount Mitchell down to Bolens Creek. At about twelve miles, it was more than I had time for since I'd have to do it round-trip style and that was a grand total of 24 miles. Too many miles to pack into what I knew would be a relatively short hiking day. So I scheduled to leave from the summit of Mitchell and hike half the trail to Winter Star, making for a twelve-mile round trip hike. Well within my schedule and abilities.
The day I'd chosen, November 11, 2004, was a spectacular one for day-hiking. It was unseasonably warm and the skies were clear and almost cloudless. I'd gotten a later start that I wanted, but I managed to get to the peak of the Mitchell by 10:00 am rather than the 9:00 am I was hoping for. In quick order I parked my truck, shouldered my daypack, and started down the trail.
I knew that the Black Mountain Crest Trail had a reputation for being one of the toughest in the Southeastern USA. So I was mentally prepared for a long day of physical exertion. I was not prepared for the sheer beauty of the trail, though. It far exceeded my expectations and I kept coming to one vast scene of beauty after another as I hiked over rocky summits and passed along cliffs and walked down into deep gaps dark with balsam trees. Very early into the hike as I walked briskly along, I startled a black bear that plunged off the trail before me and ran at great speed into the forests to escape our encounter. I'd obviously startled him far more than he'd surprised me, and I was disappointed that I hadn't had time to get a photo of him.
Stopping repeatedly to set up my tripod, I took well over 100 photographs as I hiked over Mount Craig, and Big Tom, and Cattail Peak, and Potato Hill, Balsam Cone, and Winter Star. Each of these peaks is separated from the next by a deep gap into which the trail plunges and one must climb steeply to the next to achieve the summit. I was having so much fun and was so impressed by the beauty of the trail (which I had all to myself, as I encountered not a single other hiker), I didn't have time to wonder about being tired.
In a few hours I was standing in Deep Gap and looking up at the romantically named mountain, Winter Star, which I soon climbed, standing on the summit and looking north toward the half of the trail I didn't have time to hike. After taking a few photos, I headed back toward Mount Mitchell and my waiting truck.
My wife insists that I always take everything with me when I go off hiking on my own. Everything that I might need in case of an emergency. A whistle. Warm clothing. Waterproof matches. Extra water. Compass. Map. And on and on. As I was heading out of Deep Gap and back up the mysteriously named Potato Hill (it's one of the biggest and baddest mountains in the eastern USA, so why it would be called "Hill" is beyond me), I realized that I hadn't brought enough water. As I topped the mountain I finished off the last swig in my last water bottle. I pushed on.
It was soon after this that the cramps hit me.
The pain in my thighs was almost heart-stopping. The tendons from my knees to my groin seemed to freeze up and I was stopped in my tracks. As I stood there grimacing in pain and unable to move or take a single step, I was wondering if I was suffering from the altitude, for the entire trail lies well over a mile above sea level, and most of that being at, or above, 6,000 feet. It was only later, after talking to a physician, that I found that what had happened was that I had sweated out a lot of minerals and my body was punishing me for that. What I needed was some salt and some potassium, but at the time I didn't know that, and didn't have either at any rate.
So I rested there in the dark, balsam woods waiting for the pain to abate enough so that I could continue. The sun was beginning to set and I still had several miles to go to get back to my truck. The thought of being stuck on this tough trail in the dark was most unappealing.
As soon as the pain subsided, I began to hike again. Within a few yards the cramps came back, with a vengeance, and I was stopped yet again on the steep, rocky slopes of Big Tom Mountain. The Black Mountain Crest Trail was not going to let me get back to my truck without a struggle, it seemed. All I could do was stand there and let the cramps fade and try again.
This went on, time and again, as I hiked the extremely steep slopes (sometimes needing all four limbs to continue onward), achieving peaks and then dropping down again into plunging gaps before tackling the following mountain. I was worried that I wouldn't make it back to my truck before nightfall. In addition to the idea of hiking in the dark (I had a headlamp in my pack, which allieved some of that worry), I knew that the Park Service closed and locked the gates at nightfall, so I'd be locked in if I didn't get out in time.
By the time I reached Mount Craig, with its exposed summit and looming cliff faces, I could see Mount Mitchell. The skies were ruddy with the fading sun and I knew that I still had more than a mile to hike and the cramps kept attacking my legs at frustrating intervals. The thought of the full water bottles that awaited me at my truck kept me pushing on. In the hollow between Mount Craig and Mount Mitchell, the sun was having a hard time reaching into the dark balsam woods. It was easy to realize why this range is called The Black Mountains. But I knew that I was almost home free.
In the last of the fading light, I finally came out of the forest and reached the parking lot below the summit of Mount Mitchell. I opened the door and grabbed first one, and then a second bottle of water and guzzled them. The cramps begant o subside as I got some moisture back into my body. Going to the bathhouse at the mountaintop, I changed into some clean clothes, then went back to my truck and headed down into Asheville for a meal and the long drive back home.
Since that trip, I've added a few things to the kit that I take with me when I hike:
aspirin and vitamin tablets.