Wrestling the Charcoal Bastard
Well, I don’t really recommend the hike I took on Saturday, March 21, if you haven’t been hiking in many months. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a fantastic hike packed with so much scenery that one finds it difficult to look where your feet are going. Instead, all you want to do is gape at the surrounding peaks, the steep walls of the gorge, the soaring cliff faces, the tumbling river, the blooming flowers…well, you see what I mean.
But it had been far too long since I’d hit the trails. My legs were out of shape and my lungs were still scarred from the pneumonia I had in January. And I was going to have to try to keep up with two much younger hikers, my friends Jack Thyen and Andy Kunkle.
But, like I said, it had been far too long since I’d hit the trails. You see? I didn’t really care how tough the hike was going to be. I was more concerned with getting back to my hobby and seeing a little bit of what the wild world has to offer. I can only live so long without walking through wilderness, and then I begin to lose focus. I have to have that contact with Mother Nature. There’s nothing else that does it for me, but hiking in the wild places.
I met up with Andy and his dog, Boone at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Gastonia. This is where we generally join forces to hit the mountains. This time, Andy and Boone hopped into my new truck and we left his car in the parking lot and headed to the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area where Jack Thyen was going to join us at the Pinch In Trailhead. We had a good time gabbing as we drove along and when we got to the trailhead, Jack soon found us.
We drove to the edge of the wilderness area via the Kistler Memorial Highway. Anyone reading the title on a map could actually confuse this with a real highway. It’s nothing like that. Kistler is a gravel one-lane road that hugs the eastern heights of the gorge and is a pretty rough Forest Service roadway. Currently, it’s in good repair and an auto can handle the terrain, but sometimes this is not the case, and in times like that I would suggest tackling it with a high clearance vehicle and four-wheel drive.
Once we’d met up with Jack I followed him in his Toyota Tacoma as we deposited his vehicle at the Conley Cove Trailhead a few miles down Kistler. Due to the nature of the hike, we needed a shuttle
to get back to my truck where we’d all embark. In short order we dropped off his vehicle and had returned to the Pinch In.
The Pinch In Trail is a very tough hike. It drops directly down into the gorge without benefit of switchbacks. It just follows the contours of a ridge and plummets right down toward the Linville River. The fires of 2007 hit this area really hard. These fires were particularly fierce. Sometimes a fire will just consume the dry underbrush and merely scorch a few leaves and darken some trunks. Not this fire. It came on the heels of a hideous drought that itself came on the heels of two other droughts. All of North Carolina was bone dry and the Linville Wilderness was a conflagration waiting for a spark.
Generally, some vegetation will survive even a strong fire. But not with this one. It even charred the rhododendron and mountain laurel. It swept down into coves. It turned the pines and oaks and poplars into jutting black sticks. This fire even burned up the soil! It burned all the way down to the carbonless mineral dirt. It was a really bad fire.
However…there is always something good that comes from such a disaster. In this case—and I mention this in complete selfishness as a human—it opened up the views and vistas of the gorge like nothing else. Where once you had hiked through obscuring vegetation, now you have unimpeded views of the peaks and canyons. The whole place has become geological eye candy.
It was cold, so we were bundled well in jackets, caps, gloves et cetera. And we headed down the Pinch In Trail, stopping often to take photos. The sky was overcast, in contrast to the reports all of us had read of clear skies and mild temperatures. We could only hope the various weathermen had been right and that the cloud cover would soon break.
In very short order, the trail dropped us a full two thousand feet down into the bottom of Linville Gorge. Fortunately, the fire had faded as it approached the river and so most of the tree cover down along the banks of the Linville is still green and vigorous. The hemlocks, of course, are all dying due to the adelgid infestation, but the rest of the trees seem to be in decent health.
Our first goal of the day was a place called Daffodil Flats. Only one family ever lived in the depths of the gorge and while almost all trace of their presence is long gone, there is still one thing to show that they once lived there:
Each Spring, thousands of yellow daffodils rise up to bloom in the flats where their little farm once stood. It seems a small thing as a destination, but somehow pleasing. All around you are forests and river and mountain ridges looming thousands of feet. And yet, here you hike to see a big patch of pretty flowers that lie so small and close to the earth.
We took photos here and then hiked back the way we’d come to a small beach and a very nice swimming hole on the Linville River. There, we had lunch. Boone, the eight-month-old dog had a blast kicking up the sand, and so we had to move back to eat our sandwiches and such as he filled the air with quartzite particles.
From there, we started back to the Pinch In Trail and began pushing up those same, steep slopes. We had to regain most of those two thousand feet we’d lost heading down and it was rough. I knew that it would be—especially as I’d had no real exercise over the past few months. Soon, my thighs and calves were screaming for mercy, but Dogback Mountain and Mr. Gravity were having none of that. I had to lag back and let my young companions blaze ahead while I huffed and puffed my way to the broken and burnt heights we’d left that morning.
Soon, though, we were back at around the 3,000-foot level on the rim of the gorge. Andy wanted to bushwhack cross country until we would hit the Rock Jock Trail. That trail had originally been blazed by rock climbers and scramblers, but the 2007 fire and disuse had mainly obliterated it. So the Forest Service had constructed a new Rock Jock route and that was where we were headed.
Trusting Andy’s route-finding skills, I followed him into the burnt and broken forest. The place was all dry and dead, and most of what was left of the trees and brush were carbonized. Everything I touched and everything that bumped against my legs and arms left charcoal smears. But Andy knew where he was going and after about half a mile we found ourselves on the Rock Jock Trail.
From there, we pushed on. This is easily the most scenic trail I’ve hiked in the gorge. Every few feet you have to stop and stare at the mountains. Far below lies the river, which you can hear crashing against boulders and flowing over vast rapids even from 2,000 feet above. The trail takes you to the very edge of high cliff faces where you can look down at hundreds of feet of empty air.
Coming to a place called Balanced Rock, I handed my camera to Jack and asked him to take some shots of me. As I stepped out onto the narrow top of the boulder, which seemed to hover over a vast drop off, I told him to snap three shots. That’s all that I felt I had the nerve for. However, by the time he took the second one, I yelled out, “Never mind the third! I’m getting the hell off of here!”
The Rock Jock Trail moves through a number of coves and over small creeks and cascades that tumble down into what was, before the fires, lush forests of hemlock and cove hardwoods. Now there is mainly just the tangle of dead underbrush and shattered rock making its way slide by slide to the river bottom. But it’s still all somehow beautiful. At one point, the trail hugs a rock overhang that serves as a strange little waterfall.
After some time of hiking at a good clip, we came to a great spot on the trail where the mountain fell away from us and the opposite side of the gorge was revealed in spectacular fashion. The air was clear and mild and so we stopped to take more photos. By this time my thighs were actually cramping. I had been afraid that I was actually going to run out of water, but as I dug through my pack for some salty food, I found another full bottle. Jack gave me some caffeine/aspirin concoction not unlike a tablet form of BC Powder which I chewed up and chased with a slug of water. The stuff worked well and the pain in my thighs and calves quickly eased off. Soon we were underway again.
At around 4:30 pm or so, we found that we’d come to the intersection with the Conley Cove Trail which we took to the parking lot and Jack’s truck. We had to pass a couple of sights toward the end of the hike. But that gives me ample reason to go back to seek them out. In the meantime, I’ve added Daffodil Flats and the Rock Jock Trail to the things that I’ve now seen in Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.