“What’s the numbers on your chest represent? A phone number? Social security number?A specific date?”
“Actually, it’s the elevation of my favorite mountain.”
I never expect anyone to understand. Sure, there’s a few that truly understand the feeling of having your soul and heart attached to a certain place, but for the most part, people just shrug and move on as they do with most tattoo questions.
Mount LeConte has held a special place in my heart since the moment I turned the corner at Inspiration Point and my heart fluttered with excitement at the site of the distant Anakeesta ridge.
LeConte has been a critical part of cultivating so many amazing friendships…
It’s been the home of some wild and crazy solo adventures like The Great Ascension (a 78 mile link up of an out and back of every trail connected to LeConte)
GatlinDome… a +40 mile loop from my hotel in downtown Gatlinburg up and over Clingmans and back…
And some non solo adventures like… Fav 2 Fav… a +40 mile point to point that linked LeConte and Rocky Top…
A few weeks ago, Matty Fierce and I went up to celebrate my graduation. When I received my undergrad degree in kinesiology, I went through the entire process of walking across stage and taking ALL the pictures, but wanted something a lil more intimate and special for my graduate degree.
When me and MF head to the Smokies, we typically try and slide in some newer trails as to slowly check em off the map. We spent the previous day running a 25 mile route on a few trails we’d never been on that lead us to familiar spots.
But I really really wanted to be on my mountain for graduation. So we bounced up Alum and hit the usual spots like the Lodge and the summit…
And Myrtle Point…
As we started making our way over to Cliff Top, I came across a stick that resembled the shape of a diploma.
“I’ve got an idea for a graduation picture…”
The rocks were empty when we arrived…
But soon enough, a hiker came up and offered to take a picture.
It was perfect. I’ve had a lot of cool photos with a lot of amazing people on LeConte, but this photo will always hold a significant spot in my heart. It means so much more than I’m willing and able to express through text.
After the trip, I posted the pic on one of the Smokies Facebook pages. I had always enjoyed seeing others’ pictures and experiences that get posted there and just thought maybe others would like to share in this one. It was well received.
At this point in my life, I’m feeling extremely grateful. Grateful for a body that allows me to move across mountainous terrain to see the wonders of the world… grateful for the love and support I’ve received and have in my life… grateful for all the people and experiences… simply put… I just feel grateful. I’d even go as far as saying #grateful.
If you know me at all… you probably know that I’ve painted my body with the places, experiences and people that I love the most. I don’t ragret any marking I’ve ever made… (not even one single letter) and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so until I make the passage to the next life…
The older I get, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the authentic. Authentic friendships. Authentic experiences. Authentic love. The modern world has us chasing instant gratification and it seems like a new trend comes and goes every single day. Some people and events can mask themselves in authenticity, but if you stare long enough, you can see through the makeup and nails to reveal the gimmicks.
I remember standing outside of Camp Morganton in 2013 when a slender man with a bull horn drew a line in the gravel with his foot.
I was an abecedarian in the world of mountain ultra running, but instantly knew there was something genuine about Cruel Jewel. It was raw. It was real. You couldn’t “fake it till you make it” your way through this race.
Originally, CJ56 started at 4pm and was essentially a night ultra. I lined up with 16 other adventurers and set off for Vogel. After 15hrs20mins, I arrived to the park first, but there was no finish line. The finish was a cabin with a few folks hanging out. For my first ultra win, I got a fist bump and a cold beer. Authentic to its core.
Since 2013, I’ve gone back to the beautiful North Georgia mountains to experience the Dragon several times. Before changing directions, I had my eye on Hardrock and fought my way through 2 Cruel Jewel 106 mile finishes (2016 & 2018) to snag qualifiers. Cruel Jewel holds a special place in my heart and my skin…
But let me be authentic with you guys… I’m sure as shit glad that Covid canceled the 2020 attempt. I was not looking forward to battling the Dragon again. The 106 mile journey is such a massive undertaking and a labor of love. It not only takes a special kind of personal grit, but it also takes a special type of human to sacrifice their own time and well being to crew/pace. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, crewing/pacing a 100 miles is harder than running a 100 miles. I’ll forever be blown away by those who support these types of endurance endeavors.
Due to the 2020 covid cancellation, runners were given the option to defer to the following year or get a credit for Dumass events. Since grad school hadn’t really offered the free time to properly train for a 100 miler, I chose to drop down to the 56 miler to give myself a lil more grace with my weekly mileage. My approach to ultra running training during grad school looked completely different than pre-grad school, but I think the approach has been effective. Ive felt happier and healthier with lower mileage paired with more quality workouts/runs. Plus, a lot of my longer efforts have been solo and I believe that’s played into the overall mental well being of my running.
Speaking of grad school…. I’M FINISHED!! I graduated on May 8th! It still doesn’t feel real! Perhaps it doesn’t feel real since I opted for a shorty shorts Mount LeConte graduation instead of the typical walk across stage in a black robe type of graduation.
Heading back to North Georgia for the 2021 CJ56 felt like freedom in so many different ways. I didn’t have school work or internship looming in the back of my mind,… I wasn’t searching for a job since I had recently secured a therapist position at a private nonprofit… I was free to enjoy the N Ga mountains with no bonds or ties.
Since we (the Road Prong Boyz) already had a big mountain adventure planned for June, the usual suspects couldn’t make it out to CJ to crew. I had originally planned to just snag a campsite and shuttle/drop bag my way through the race, but Kati said we could make a weekend out of it and she’d crew me. My wife Kati has always been one of the biggest supporters of my endurance endeavors, but after I botched a few experiences for her… I gave her a life long pass of not having to come out to anymore events. I got super stoked when she suggested coming along with me since we’ve not gotten to spend a lot of time together due to grad school and such. So we said goodbye to our cats and headed to Blue Ridge.
We snagged a cute little AirBnB about 10mins from Camp Morganton called “The Happy Place.” It was quiet and allowed easy access to all the crew accessible aid stations for the race!
After dinner in Blue Ridge, we called it an early night.
“Oh damn, it’s kinda cold!”
Race morning weather couldn’t have been any better. 42° and gorgeous.
We had a small, chatty group as we made our way down the asphalt of Snake Nation and up the big hill towards Deep Creek trail head. The road had been my friend for the past several months so I felt comfortable moving quickly along the blacktop. I didn’t have much of a strategy for the day and had no real plans of competing with anyone other than myself. I wanted this race to be more of a celebratory run than a competition. My personal plan was to go out quick and stay consistent until I reached Skeenah, where I’d inevitably slow down to cater to the Dragon.
I pushed through Deep Gap aid (mile 2.7) without checking up. It had been years since I’d run this loop in the daylight and enjoyed the easy movement. Ya tend to forget how pleasant a section can be when you have +50 miles on your legs already.
I passed my girl Sunny on the backside of the loop. She was back for revenge. Sunny and her pacer Stan were pushing through the first morning. I stopped for a quick hug before carrying on to the aid station. The mental fortitude and persistence that resides in Sunny is something out of this world. I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of her finish.
I got back to Deep Gap aid (mile 8.5) and quickly had a volunteer verify my bib punch before heading towards Weaver.
Oh Weaver… how thou sucketh so badeth.
“This pointless out and back is why youare running 56 miles and not 50 miles.”
Yea… that sign sucks… but it sucks even worsewhen you change the numbers to 106 and 100. Dropping down to Weaver isn’t so bad when it’s mile 10 and not 60. I passed 2 other BHM lads (Don and Robby) pursuing their CJ buckles.
I found myself enjoying the climb out of Weaver. I wasn’t falling asleep to the sunrise with Matty Fierce like I was in 2018…
I wasn’t deliriously wondering if some old man with a rifle was gonna shoot me and OJG like in 2016… (thassa true story tho…)
I was just climbing and enjoying the morning when I came upon another Birmingham bad ass tackling the 106 miler. As always, Missy looked fresh and was moving well!
Once I topped the climb out of Weaver, it was easy running down to Stanley (mile 18.9).
The guys weren’t too far behind me so I decided to kick a lil on the asphalt to try and bank some extra time for the Dragon. I got into a steady groove and was well ahead of my anticipated arrival (by ~ 45mins) for Old Dial. I was a bit worried I’d miss Kati at Old Dial aid (mile 24.8) and told the volunteers to be on the lookout for a cute girl in a black death metal t shirt. Luckily, Kati had litrully just parked when I was leaving the aid tent.
I took a quick sip of Coke and tried to monch a Clif Bar, but solid foods weren’t the ticket for the day.
I quickly headed out of Old Dial and up towards the fire tower. Even though it’s been since 2018 that I’ve been on this particular portion of trail, everything felt familiar. I allowed myself to revisit some old memories and conversations as I pushed up towards the fire tower, but quickly snapped out of it when they started turning negative. I rolled into Wilscot aid (mile 30.3) a little overheated. Though not as hot as previous years, this was still one of my first exposures to warmer weather this year. Hell, it was 30° with snow flurries during last weekend’s 25 mile adventure in the Smokies w/ Matty Fierce!
I was starting to feel a bit dehydrated and knew I wasn’t taking in enough liquids. I grabbed a 2nd handheld from Kati before leaving Wilscot. As you can see from the above chipmunk cheek picture, the bacon at Wilscot was top notch.
Wilscot to Skeenah was pretty uneventful. I kept pushing as hard as my body would comfortably allow through some of the more runnable sections. Every time I felt overheated, I’d douse myself with a little water and catch a cooler wind through the trees.
Skeenah (mile 35.2) was a welcomed sight. Skeenah marks the beginning of the end. The Duncan Ridge Trail is a relentless beat down when you’ve got a pair of fresh legs… but the Dragon Spine is just down right fierce when you’ve already got many tough mountain miles under your feet.
I was curious of how I’d feel about the DRT when I only had to cover its ground once. As always, the climb out of Skeenah along the BMT was long and hot! As I turned onto the DRT, I gave myself a little pep talk.
“Alright Andrews, 20 miles. Stay steady. Pick up your feet. Stay consistent.”
Typically when I run long alone… I’ll get a song stuck in my head and it’ll become my mantra. I’ll tie myself into the song’s cadence or deep dive into the lyrics to take my mind off the present. At Blood Rock 50 it was MGK’s “Kiss, Kiss” that played on repeat in my dome piece. At CJ56, it was Taking Back Sunday’s “Timberwolves at New Jersey.”
Get up, get up
Come on, come on, let's go
There's just a few things
I think that you should know
Those words at best
Were worse than teenage poetry
As I started rounding into Fish Gap aid (mile 40), I saw Ryan James well into the late miles heading to another 100 mile finish. Dudes been crushing lately.
It was good catching up with RJ for a bit. I hadn’t seen him since he made the move to Black Mountain from Birmingham. We came into the aid together where the wonderful Baker family was volunteering.
“Ya just need to make it to Fire Pit and you’re done.”
Ryan was right. If I could just drop down to Mulky and fight my way to Fire Pit, I’d be sitting pretty for a solid push to the finish.
After Mulky, a fleeting memory of the Lesbian Mountain Dew adventure flashed in my mind as I passed a certain area along the trail. Years ago… out of water with no access along the DRT, a friend and I came across a strange couple camped along the trail. It appeared that their main form of nutrition for the trip was a 24 pack of Mountain Dew. I verbally expressed my longing for one of those bright green cans and they were generous enough to offer us up a couple.
The memory triggered an immediate need for Mountain Dew at Fire Pit aid (mile 47.4). After a cup or 2, I buried that memory and poured some out for a lost homie.
I slogged my way up to Coosa Bald and was relieved when I topped out .
I spent the next 4 miles descending towards Vogel. Despite the 50 miles or so already on my legs, the descent was a lot of fun! I knew the guy behind me (Brian) was relatively close (he’d been 1-6mins back all day), so I needed to push the last couple of miles. I hit Wolf Creek aid (mile 52), filled my bottle with a lil bit of water and dug in for the last 4 miles. In the last couple of CJ100s, the headlamp would come out for this long, drawn out duck waddle into Vogel. I was stoked that the sun was still shining bright and I still felt strong (and that I wasn’t at mile 102). I crossed the road and passed Becca as I dipped back into the woods. She snagged a 2nd place overall female finish and honestly… it didn’t even look like she had been moving through the mountains for +30hrs!
The moment my feet hit the pavement at Vogel I heard a camper yell:
“You wanta beer?!”
Damn it felt good to be done.
11hrs20mins ~ 1st overall
The Cruel Jewel folks really know how to put on a first class, authentic event. I can’t speak highly enough of the amount of effort, love and passion they put into this journey each year. The RDs and volunteers are half the reason I keep coming back to support this race.
I can’t thank my Dark Princess enough for the incredible support she gave me all day!
Kati and I walked into the dining area to sit down for a bit. The heat and the gel diet was slowly catching up to me….
We enjoyed talking with Brian Oestrike post race. He’s such a humble bad ass. Hopefully I can link back up with him at Pinhoti 100 when I’m a lil more talkative and there’s a lil less poison ivy!
I spent the drive back to our cabin periodically getting Kati to pull over so that I could throw up in various Blairsville and Blue Ridge parking lots…
Thankfully the nausea settled overnight and we got to spend the next day exploring the Bigfoot museum…
And Amicalola Falls!
Cruel Jewel was the perfect way to cap off the end of a tough season of my life. I’m sure I’ll see ya again Dragon… in a couple of years.
“An adventure isn’t worth telling if there aren’t any dragons in it.”
“I’m gonna pop some tags, only got $20 in my pocket.”
The rules are simple. You get to wear your own socks, shoes and undergarments but outside of that… you’ve got $20 to spend in one single transaction to get everything you need for a 50k. $20 may seem like it would be plenty, but we (Matty Fierce & I) feel it’s a good cap to make participants think creatively and strategically through their purchases. Since the fatass event takes place in January, you never know what the weather is going to be like. Will it be 70° and humid? Will it be 23° and freezing? Will there be rain? This is the beauty of the Alabama. Outside of clothing purchases… participants must think through nutrition. Yes. You read that correctly. Your nutrition must also come from the thrift store. On top of that… how will one carry said nutrition? Backpack? Fanny pack? It’s all about the hunt!!
The origins of this nonsense seem to be lost in the 2019/2020 history books. I vaguely remember being half lit with my boys on Lookout Mtn 50 mile weekend 2019 wandering around downtown Chattanooga and passed a Family Dollar on the way back to our loft. Someone mentioned that one day we should all just walk into a Family Dollar or Dollar General and make a single purchase and run a marathon. That concept stuck in our dome pieces long enough that we would periodically mention it so we wouldn’t forget.
We set the date in January since there wasn’t a lot going on and we needed a long run. At first, we were just gonna do it ourselves, but then decided to make it an unofficial event and throw it out into the run community for a potential group run. I’m real glad we did that. It turned out to be waaaaaaay more fun that way!
Over the last 3-4 weeks, we went out and scouted a potential route. We wanted to provide errrrrybody with water opportunities every 10-11 miles so that it could be a true fatass event with no aid. Section 1 turned out to be a solid section, allowing an option with easy access back to the start for the folks that didn’t want to cover the 50k distance. I think going forward we’ll keep that section 1 option so that more people can participate and enjoy the challenge!
I was pretty happy about the route we linked together! With the exception of a half mile of road, we never had to backtrack on any trail we had previously covered during the event! The route ended up being 31.4 miles w/ ~ 4K of climbing!
I think what made the event so much fun was the build up to the run. It was entertaining to see people posting their swag and thrift finds on the event page! Everyone had their own unique strategy and style!
Since the weather forecast looked gorgeous, I went minimal with the clothing and loaded up on snacks. I snagged a pair of women’s CrossFit games shorty shorts (w/ “I’m the toughest girl I know” written on the liner), a unicorn Great Smoky Mountains t-shirt, some gloves, a sweet beanie, a Jim Beam fanny pack and waaaaay to big water bottle. For nutrition, I went with oatmeal cream pies (big no-go for next year), some salted nuts, watermelon gummy rings, gummy worms and a Gatorade. My haul cost $18.66.
We honestly had no clue how many folks were gonna show, but we made sure to get out the day before and flag the route. We actually had a pretty decent turnout for a last minute event! And let me tell ya… the thrift swag was even better in person!
After we all had to recite the runner’s oath… we set off for a fun filled day on the trails!
Since this wasn’t an actual race, I stayed back a bit to ensure everyone at least nailed the first turn. I enjoyed getting to chat with some folks that I hadn’t seen in a while. It seems like it’s been forever since I’ve just been a part of a group run outside of my core crew.
Great conversation made the first 11.5 miles tick away quickly. A small group convened near the marina/paddle boats and chatted for a minute or 2 before filling up on water and heading back onto the trails. Most of the crowd did the first 11.5 miles and took the .5 road walk back to their car. A few brave souls were in for the full ride with 2-3 looking to get 20-24 miles in for the day.
The weather continued to improve as the morning progressed. I know winters seem to be grey and gloomy… especially with the early sunset… but this one seems to be more so than the last. The sun was refreshing.
Once we got onto the Blue trail, I linked up with Pete and we made a good push to the BMX area (for lack of a better word: aid station 2). The BMX area was about the 21 mile mark. Pete was wrapping up his run at BMX and I didn’t really feel much like running the last section alone, so we chilled and shot the breeze with Greg & William until the others arrived. Adelita called it a day at BMX (who looked super strong to have only been back training for a few weeks!) & Kristi decided to dock on a few road miles to get her 24 miles. TJ rolled through and carried on down the trail and I joined up with Andrew as he came through BMX. The 3 of us ran the last 10 miles together. I had never run with these dudes before and enjoyed our time on the trails together!
Once we hit tranquility road, we linked up with Teri for the last few miles. We were welcomed at the finish area by a few folks in lawn chairs. I enjoyed the post-run fellowship in the sun!
I/we can’t thank everyone enough for coming out and joining in on our fun run! I can’t wait till next year when we have more time to plan some super cheesy thrift store awards. But let’s all get one thing clear…. Oatmeal Cream Pie is NOT where’s it at friends… right Matty Fierce?!
Why are we so afraid of silence? Is it because we’ve clouded our world with perpetual noise and the moment we catch a break in the clatter, we slip into an uncomfortable silence and are forced to confront the thoughts rattling around inside our heads? I think yes.
We’ve created such a world that silence is the enemy. It’s the terrifying demon that lives under the bed that we’re too afraid to confront. We’ve been conditioned in such a way where we have to be consistently stimulated and in depth conversation or something is “wrong.”
Over the years I’ve grown fond of silence. I’ll intentionally set out on a +8hr adventure or take a weekend trip alone to the mountains so that I can spend some time with me. I’ve found it to be very therapeutic to get that alone time and for me personally, physical pursuits in the mountains often resolve (or at least help) any internal struggles. The mountains bring a sense of simplicity and clarity. I believe in the same way psychological issues can directly turn into and/or effect physiological issues, the roles can be reversed.
Typically solo mountain weekends are planned and I prepare myself mentally for the silence. Sometimes they’re not. This past weekend was supposed to be our annual winter edition of Mountains Girls Weekend that we’ve all grown to love, however, a few things popped up and it got canceled last minute. C’est la vie.
This weekend was the last time I’d get an opportunity to get up to the Smokies until March/April, so I needed to make the most of it.
I slowly allowed my body to warm during the half mile gravel jaunt to the Bullhead trailhead before pushing up the mountain. Each time I take Bullhead, it always seems to have a different feel and has turned into one of the prettiest routes up/down LeConte.
The mountain offered no views, so there was no escape from my thoughts. No matter how hard I tried to shake some annoying internal dialogue, I couldn’t seem to suppress it enough to enjoy the joys of the mountain. I finally found some mental reprieve by the time I hit the ridge.
Matty Fierce and I had been up the month prior and encountered a good bit of snow on LeConte, but there was a good 2-4in more this trip! I’d never seen my mountain encased in such beautiful splendor!
Even though Cliff Tops would bring no view, I decided to climb it anyways to see if the heavens would allow for a partial view of the blanketed trees below.
I took a few deeps breaths of the fresh mountain air and stole a moment to stare into the grey abyss before 3 guys approached. I chatted with the 3 college guys for a few minutes before heading over to Myrtle.
Myrtle was even more peaceful than Cliff Tops. I deducted from the perfectly blanketed summit that I was the first person to set foot on its grounds for the day. My thoughts quickly shifted to 2 of my best friends. They just brought in 2 new lil baby boys to the world and I felt compelled to build a tiny lil snowman and say a prayer for each of them. I’m so excited to see their family grow and stoked to see what kind of ridiculousness those 2 future adventurers will pursue!
I was captivated by the haunting beauty of the Smoky Mountains as I made my way back towards the Lodge.
I popped by the lodge to see if the winter caretaker was home. I sent Pnut a quick message but he was off the mountain for the weekend. Still made him a lil snowman though.
Since I’ve never seen this much snow up on LeConte, I took some time and roamed the grounds around the lodge.
6593 for lyfe!!
By the time I left the Lodge I felt that serene, inner peace that the mountains often bring, but the further I descended down Rainbow, the more clouded my head became. I got to Rainbow Falls and had all but decided to just get in my car and go home. I drove out to Pigeon Forge and sat in my warm car wrestling with my next move. Since Mtn Girls Weekend got canceled, I didn’t have a place to stay. I could’ve slept in the back of my car for another night, but was prepared for a warm shower and bed… and a cold sub freezing night in the back of the Element sounded… unpleasant.
I like counseling for a lot of reasons and think it is and could be beneficial for every one. One of the main functions of counseling is to have another person take the clouded or scattered thoughts in your head and reconfigure and present them in a simple way so that you can come to your own conclusion. Counseling aside, it’s important to have those types of people in your life. I’m extremely thankful for the open and honest communication I have with my wife Kati. She helps me sort the cloudiness in my dome piece and simplifies my thoughts more than I can explain.
“Enjoy yourself! Go get a yummy meal and a beer! Watch tv and take a hot shower! Enjoy your life!” ~ Kati
“Are you gonna feel better in the mountains or suck ass Alabama?” ~ Matty Fierce
Between the Dark Princess and MF’s words of encouragement, I decided to go grab a shit ton of chicken nuggies, a few burgers, some beer and booked a cheap hotel next to the river.
Since all the forecasts suggested drizzly, cold rain in the valley and snow flurries and cloud coverage in the higher elevations, I decided to sleep in and enjoy a lazy morning in a warm hotel bed. Of course… the one day I decided to NOT strap on a headlamp and push up a mountain is the one day there’s an epic snowy sunrise on Leconte! My friend Adam Williamson (a local photographer me and MF met over the summer on Cammerer) posted this unreal shot from LeConte!
The good thing about social media is that it allows us to share some of our most beautiful moments with each other. If social media didn’t exist, I would never have gotten to see this gorgeous sunrise!
I checked the local road situation before packing my bags and heading out the door. I had planned to do some recon work early the day before for some Spring off trail adventures, but access to the area was closed off. Since 441 was still shut down, I decided to head up Sugarland Mtn to see if I could recon from a different angle, plus, I needed to finish the bottom half of the trail anyways.
The climb up was peaceful. I passed 2 hikers a mile or so in, but after that, I had the mountain to myself. Sugarland had a bunch of under brush and low hanging branches along the trail which had me annoyingly brushing off snow from my clothes. It was apparent by the time I got to the Rough Creek turn, that I would get no chance at any sort of visual reconnaissance so I made the decision to go ahead and descend back down the mountain.
The first mile or so along Rough Creek was much like Sugarland, but quickly settled into a fun and runnable trail. The fog paired with the snowy environment was breathtaking.
I carefully rock hopped a few creeks and playfully followed animal tracks along the trail.
I transitioned into a steady tempo run when I hit Little River Trail. Even though this trail was more like a jeep road, I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful movement next to the rushing water.
To keep the purity of the route, I decided not to take Husky back over to reconnect with Sugarland. Instead, I made my way to Elkmont campground. I made a quick stop to see some of the sites, like the old staircase to the Wonderland Hotel:
The snow was so beautiful that I didn’t even mind the few miles along the road back to the trailhead.
I quickly stripped down, changed into warm, dry clothes and cracked open a colbeer when I got back to my car.
I enjoyed the silence the mountain brought that day. My voice stayed quiet, my mind wasn’t cluttered, and my heart didn’t feel heavy. Sometimes it’s best to stay silent and let the world unfold around you.
I’m thankful to have gotten the chance to get up to the Smokys one more time to play in the snow. Team Andrews has got some big goals this year. Between wrapping up my final semester and internship of grad school, Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge, and my regular job at the thrift store, these types of mountain adventures will be few and far between. The next 5 months will be mental chaos but I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store. If it’s anything like last year, it’ll be another year of hard, hard growth.
When you’re sleeping in the back of a car, a vehicle pulling into a gravel parking lot is one of the most unmistakable sounds you’ll ever know. Your brain immediately launches into over analyzing everything.
Is this where they tap on the window? What do I tell them? Maybe this is NOT a ranger but a criminal! Are they gonna try and break into my car?
We popped our heads out of our warm sleeping bags and watched as they unlocked the gate to the stables. The sky was barely lit, but we decided to go ahead a pull into the picnic parking area and start getting ready for the day.
For breakfast, we monched on the Chick Fil A sandwiches we bought the night before. We did a quick gear check and started out onto the cold, bone dry trail for a long day in the snowy mountains.
Once we got onto Russell Field Trail, our world quickly became shrouded in a white substance that is Alabamians hardly ever get a chance to see. The little snow we get in Bama is hardly ever enjoyable. Perhaps it’s the < 1 inch dusting or maybe it’s the holy hell there could be snow so let’s go out and buy up all the bread and milk panic. Either way… snow is rarely enjoyed in my state.
The week before, I made my way over to the Walsh’s household where me and Ash did our annual No Views Christmas Run… and like previous years… the tradition held true. We linked 27 miles in the Standing Indian area with approximately ZERO views…
Luckily, my favorite days in the mountains are the foggy, gloomy days. Don’t get me wrong, the views are a spectacular benefit from running beautiful mountain terrain, but there’s something hauntingly mesmerizing about moving through foggy woods.
We eventually made our way up to the Appalachian Trail and chatted with a few overnight hikers from Texas at the shelter before leaving out NOBO.
The AT in white is a site to behold!
We made our way across Spence Field and dipped down in between Spence and Rocky Top. Our intentions were to do the long out and back on the remote Jenkins Ridge Trail.
Jenkins Ridge is just one of those trails that’s hard to access. There’s no easy buy-in and it’s just a long one way trail. It took us approximately 8 miles to actually get started on the 18 mile out and back.
The trail itself doesn’t offer any spectacular views but does have some steep descents (ascents depending on the direction), a few little creek crossings and a few good sections of fun single track. The biggest draw to this trail is its remoteness.
After 6 or so miles of snowy trail, we popped down onto wider double track and made our way to the trailhead near Hazel Creek (mile 17). MF did a quick flask fill and we started back up the trail monchin four Chick Fil A sandwiches.
The climb back up proved to be just as uneventful as the trip down (which is a good thing). A few of the climbs rivaled the steepness of DRT and the slick snow covered leaves added extra challenge to the effort.
The AT welcomed us back with socked in views and silence. Thankfully the last 5 miles were all downhill and we could just slide into a mindless rhythm. We took Bote down to Anthony and was met by a stubborn ass deer about a mile from the trailhead. Homeboy just refused to move so we had march off trail around it. As soon as we started back running a small black bear bolted from the trail and disappeared up the ridge.
The temps stayed in the lower > mid 20s all day, so after 31 miles of coldness, we were looking forward to a hot shower and a warm place to lay our heads. Don’t get me wrong… the back of the car sleeping bag was cozy… but the cheap hotel room and a heater was priceless (well kinda… priceless as in $41). After a huge beer and a huge bacon burger from the brewery, we dozed off into slumber.
We woke up the next morning and grabbed breakfast at the hotel. Originally, we had planned on just taking Alum Cave up to the top and back. We figured a light out and back would be a good way to wrap up the trip and wouldn’t put us home too late. 441 was still closed by the time we finished breakfast so we decided in the classic Rainbow > Bullhead loop.
It was a solid choice because Matt got to visit his tree.
There were a few hikers in between the trailhead sand Rainbow Falls, but after that, the trail became vacant. The mountains were a literal winter wonderland!!
The trail was an icy/snowy mix all the way up, but had some nice, soft powder sections as well. We didn’t have to throw on the spikes until the approach up to the lodge.
We popped down to the lodge to see if Pnut was home (he was out running Alum) before heading up to Cliff Top.
The air is so fresh and so clean clean at 6593ft
After soaking in the warmth of the sun for a few minutes, we made our way over to Myrtle to scope out another view.
We chatted with Hunter from Maryville over Cliff Bars before we started the trip down Bullhead. Upper Bullhead was snow packed which made for some soft running!
Once we dropped down a few miles, we removed the gloves, spokes and beanies. The sun had melted a good bit of the snow and we trudged through a sloppy, muddy mix.
I absolutely loooooove this section of Bullhead. There’s no better feeling than running along a wrapping trail with expansive views!
It was nice to finally run and loosen up the legs some after a long day of hike-crunching through the snow.
Trips like these are pleasant reminders of how lucky I am to have the type of people in my lyfe that are willingly to tackle uncomfortableness for the sake of adventure, fun and beauty.
I didn’t really plan on running 3 ultra distances 3 weeks in a row (50 miles > 27 miles > 31 miles) but I do PLAN on having a few light recovery weeks before hopping back into training. Though 2020 was a shitshow of a year… it was one of the best shitshows of my lyfe. Cheers to big things in 2021. Stay wild!
I don’t race that often. It’s not that I have anything against racing, it’s mostly that I’d rather be roaming the rugged and remote Appalachia under my on accord.
And honestly, racing be aspensive yo!
So I try and limit myself to 1 or 2 bigger races a year. Since Covid shut down the country and the race scene this year, my “A” race for the year was canceled. I feel it was for the best. I’m through chasing HR qualifiers and heading back to Cruel Jewel 100 for a 3rd time just seemed… preposterous and… painful.
I got my long distance fix when I linked a 78 mile route on my favorite mountain for my birthday in October, but with the year winding down, I kinda wanted to throw some of my built up stress into something hard (Blood Rock = 50 miles w/ ~ 13,000ft of gain). The last 6 months in particular have been some of the busiest and most stressful of my life. I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the master’s degree tunnel… but that light has felt more like an approaching freight train. Since the counseling program requires a 600hr internship, I had to switch jobs (again) and hop back into the retail world in order to be able to work full time and knock out my internship. I left my physical therapy family…
Between spending 20hrs at my school internship site counseling students, working 40hrs a week and wrapping up the Make-a-Wish Trailblaze Challenge… running has been one of the few things that’s kept me stable and sane. My typical week for the past semester has been jam packed. “Double Days” is a term Kati and I coined for days where I have to either do internship then work or work then class. A DD on Monday/Tuesday means going to my internship site to counseling 4-5hrs then strolling into work for an 8hr closing shift and a DD on Wednesday/Thursday usually means opening the store and then going to 3hr class or counseling supervision. If I’m lucky enough to score an “off from work” day during the week, I spend a full 8hrs at my internship site. If my “off from work” days land on weekends, I either marked/flagged/lead a Make-a-Wish hike or tried to slide in an adventure of my own. Despite the crazy, hectic schedule, I still managed to keep decent mileage on my legs each week and squeezed in runs when I could.
I felt like I’d had so much stress built up and kinda felt that I hadn’t been able to do anything that I wanted to do. Everything felt like a commitment or requirement out of my control and honestly… I just wanted to lay waste to something that I chose to do… so the Monday before Blood Rock weekend, I signed up for the 50 miler. The 50 miler was the only distance that fit my time frame… I had to be at work at 630am Saturday morning so that took out the 25k, 50k and 100 miler. I figured if I could bang out the 50 miler in a decent time, I’d at least get a few hours of sleep and could coffee my way through a sore and zombiefied morning of work.
Blood Rock 50
The last time I raced a Tosch race was in 2015. I was a big bearded, long haired dude running around the woods in a French Maid’a outfit…
Don’t worry… I left that sexy outfit hanging in the closet for the BR50.
I’d forgotten how enjoyable it was to go to a packet pick up and actually see people you knew. The weather was a wee bit chilly at the start, so I tried to stay in my car until 5-10 minutes before the start.
I walked up as Tosch was wrapping up the pre-race meeting and took my spot near the front of the pack at the starting line. I stood dwarfed by a tall, athletic looking dude…
I now know what Kevin Hart feels as he stands next to Dwayne Johnson…
After a 30 second count down, we headed out up the road to begin the race.
Daddy Long Legs shot out ahead of me and I followed suit. Thankfully, years of ultra experience has taught me patience and to not pursue out of my comfort zone, so it wasn’t hard settling into a rhythm and watching DLL break away.
We came through NTH 1 Aid Station (mile 2) fairly quickly and darted on the single track. I saw my buddy Matt Benefield setting up the aid station and yelled a quick “hey” to him! After a half mile we started the brutal Back Country Trail. The next 5 miles would be a series of up and downs resulting in approximately 2,000ft of techy climbing. I wanted to keep Daddy Long Legs in my eye site so he stayed a climb ahead of me. Climbing up through the fog was enchanting! The fog clutched tight in the trees and swallowed the view as we passed over King’s Chair. I finally caught up to DLLs as we started into the Back Country beyond King’s Chair.
Daddy Long Legs: “Which race are you running?”
Me: “The 50. How about you?”
Daddy Long Legs : “The 100. Good! I don’t have to worry about you as competition.”
This immediately rid the atmosphere of any tension and we settled into good conversation as we descended to the bottom dirt road.
Turns out… Daddy Long Legs was not his given name… it was Zack Jordan… and Zack absolutely crushed the 100 miler (1st overall in 23hrs42mins). We ran side by side along the bottom “sunken road” and Zack took point as we started the climb up Topless. To put Zack’s (Daddy Long Legs) stride into perspective… 2-3 of my lil hobbit ass strides compared to one of his American bred quarter horse strides. We both chose to bypass the water only Billy Goat Bridge aid station (mile 7.1) without checking up and rolled together till we got to the NTH 2 aid station (mile 12.5).
We got to NTH 2 at 1:55… coming in a little bit quicker (35mins) than I had originally anticipated. I figured the first 23 miles would be the toughest and I wanted to get as much as I could out of the way while I still had daylight. I was pleasantly surprised to see Matty Fierce at the aid station. For some reason, I had it in my mind that he’d not be there until the last time I’d come through NTH. I quickly refilled my bottle and darted back up the trail.
I was moving swiftly uphill but got a little too aggressive on the descent down Eagles Nest and took a hard fall. Between the slick, leaf covered terrain and grade off the mountain, both feet flew out from under me and I landed square on my back. The fall knocked the breath out of me, but fortunately, it only sent a shock to my system and didn’t do any damage. The jolt pumped enough adrenaline in me to power through the return trip through the Back Country riding a “high.”
I was still moving smoothly and comfortably by the time I reached the NTH 3 aid station (mile 22.9). My GPS was already showing short (showing 17.5) so I had to transition to paying closer attention to actual time (3:40) rather than mileage. MF was there waiting with a warm Arby’s sandwich, a cold Coke and a new water bottle.
The Cabins aid station (25.7) was practically vacant as I rolled through. I said a quick hello to Tony as I crossed over the timing pad at the start/finish area. I made a comfortable push near the BMX area along Yellow before starting the easy ascent up Orange towards the abandoned Boy Scout Cabins. While running with Matty Fierce the week before, I had imagined I’d be running down Tranquility Camp Road in the dark. Surprisingly, I was well ahead of my expectations and pushed hard down the descent to the Yellow/White connector. I caught a beautiful and fiery sunset climbing up YW and didn’t have to flip on the headlamp until I started the descent down Green.
I saw the all too familiar red glow from the heat lamps in the owl/hawk cages before turning onto Yellow/Green connector. The moment my headlamp came into view of the Terrace Drive aid station (mile 32.8) I heard a lonely “ROAD PRONG!” being yelled from the open field. Of course… I returned MF’s “Road Prong” with a gleeful “Road Prong”’ of my own.
I rolled into Terrace aid station (mile 32.8) at 5:09. The aid wasn’t entirely set up yet, but the race strategy wasn’t to even utilize aid stations unless completely necessary. I crammed a few more gels into my waist belt, switched out water bottles, monched a lil more of my Arby’s sammich and downed a bit more Coke before heading off into the night.
I was still feeling fresh leaving Terrace so I moved quickly up Johnson’s Mountain. I slowed a bit after veering off the main trail towards the neighborhood, but once I hit the Hamptons I felt like Britany and Tiffany Wilson…
The asphalt was welcomed and made for faster running until I reached the massive climb up the power line. The power line “trail” was steep but was over quickly. I stayed composed and pushed gently up the climb. I didn’t even find in necessary to have a “BF.”
I picked up the pace once I hit Peavine Road and cruised in around 6:00 to Peavine 1 (mile 38) feeling strong!
I kept the pace up as I backtracked the way I came. After leaving the trail and hitting the asphalt again, I crossed paths with the 100 mile leader (which I presumed to be Zack “DLL”) along Peavine Road. I was surprised I didn’t see any headlamps as I made my way back to the turn off near Johnson’s. The lack of headlamps made me push a little bit harder up towards the the infamous “Blood Rock.” I never felt bad throughout the race, but I took a hard step-down descending Green/White connector that jostled my belly a lil bit that resulted in a slight throw up in my mouth…. which was swallowed involuntarily and unexpectedly for some unknown reason. The climb out of Peavine Gorge was peaceful. The sounds of rushing water paired well with the cool night air and it made for a tranquil escape from the steep climb. The Peavine aid station was bustling with crew & volunteers when I came through the second time. I reached Peavine 2 (mile 44.7) at 7:09.
I finished the last bit of my Arby’s sammich (yes… the same one I’d been steadily monchin’ on all day), took another swig of Coke and grabbed a new headlamp.
Sonia was there cheering runners on and I think I may or may not have been forced to twerk on Matty Fierce before being released from the aid station? I’m sure there’s incriminating video evidence out there somewhere…
Matty Fierce: “No other 50 mile runner has come through Peavine the first time around. It’s just you and your time now.”
I dipped down the back side of the pavilion and descended down to the creek below. I the climb out was fairly steep but I knew the climbing was over when I saw the gorge overlook. I was hoping the route was gonna take runnable Blue Trail from Peavine, but instead, it took the old Grey Trail up past Sugar Shack along the ridge. Since this isn’t a “normal” trail, it was windy and rocky. I never found good rhythm through the section. I reluctantly accepted the slower movement and tried to enjoy the chilled night until the trail dipped back down to the Blue Trail. When my feet hit familiar Blue ground, I dove right back into a smooth rhythm that lead me up and over Shackleford. Passing through Maggie’s Glenn for the final time ignited one final push to the finish.
The 50 mile distance has always alluded me. It’s one of my favorite distances to cover but one that I’ve just not figured out yet. Hell… last year at Lookout Mtn 50 miler I got passed at mile 49 that dropped me out of a podium finish.
However, Blood Rock was a critical piece to slowly figuring out that 50 mile puzzle. I came across the finish line feeling like I’d just put in a hard 5k effort. I still felt like I had life in my legs, but had expended enough to feel happily depleted and worn.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a smoother and better executed race. I felt strong, composed and confident all day and most of the running seamed relatively effortless. I was fortunate enough to cross the line 1st in 8:38, setting a new course record (for the updated course that has been used the last 3yrs).
I learn a little more each time I cover long distances and maybe one day the “take the next day off from all lyfe activities” lesson will be learned… but for now… the 545am wake up call to be a zombie at work will have to suffice.
I’m extremely thankful to have pieced together a solid race to cap off a weird, weird year! I can’t say enough about the dedication and passion Tosch puts into his races and how selfless and incredible all the volunteers are who make these events so special… yall the real MVPs. And a huuuuuuge THANK YOU to my Champion Crew Chief (Matty Fierce) for following me around in the drizzle and cold all day and into the night. You da best… ROAD PRONG!!
I’m excited to be finally wrapping up my masters degree in May and looking forward to sliding back into a more balanced and less stressful lyfe schedule. Until May… I’ll continue to throw in adventures and training as time permits, but for now, it’s time to recover so that I can get up into the mountains for some wintry adventures.
“Call me real quick. I just had something come up and may need to make an adjustment but not sure if you’re flexible enough to do it.”
The way the work week had been going, I half expected something to malfunction for the upcoming vacation.
“Maaaaan I’m so frickin’ pissed right now!”
It’s 1:50pm on Monday… we are supposed to be leaving for Wyoming Wednesday evening for 10 days… now… I found myself clocking out of work, rushing home to pack to leave immediately. My brother in law, Michael, was scheduled to take his AL State Trooper’s Captain Test on Wednesday, but due to the hurricanes on the horizon, it got pushed back to the following Wednesday.
“Aight man, give me a few minutes to get my shifts covered and we’ll make it work.”
I was packed but wasn’t packed. I had most of my gear laid out, but had intentions of having a night or 2 to get everything sorted and packed how I wanted before leaving. I basically packed like I would for the Smokies… grabbed a bunch of snacks, my camping gear and threw a bunch of clothes in the duffel bag.
I hauled up ass up to Cullman to my sister’s house, shoveled down some chicken fingers and loaded up the truck.
In no time, we were out of Alabama and passing through Nashville. I decided to crawl into the back of the truck to take the first nap a little after midnight. Since I didn’t think I’d be traveling across the country on a Monday night… I had gotten up at 4am to run so that I could have the already postponed birthday dinner Monday night with Kati.
Tuesday: 26hrs Straight Thru
At 2:30am we swapped and Michael conked out in the back. Ooooooof! The 2:30-6:30am sunrise shift was tougher than any 2:30-sunrise section of a 100 miler… but somehow I got it done!
We both perked up and caught our second wind when the sun came up but that was short lived as we started our trek across the lonely, boring abyss that is Nebraska. Blarg. Nebraska took forever!
We stopped for a few sandwiches and to stretch out the legs.
We eventually made it to Wyoming and made a quick stop at Walmart so that Michael could pick up a bear tag. The last 4 hours crept by. We were both starting to feel the drive and lack of sleep. We had wrestled with trying to decide if we should go ahead and make the trip up the mountain when we got to the trail head or just wait till the morning. We arrived just after sunset and decided to check out an old cabin at the beginning of Holmes Cave Trail.
The lack of sleep and tightness from driving 26hrs straight made the decision to head up the mountain in the morning pretty easy. Michael took the backseat and I laid my sleeping pad and curled up in my sleeping bag in the bed of the truck. The stars shined incredibly as I shut my eyes and drifted to sleep.
Wednesday: Camp Angle
“Sorry if the light woke you.”
I crawled out from under the tarp covering the truck bed and stretched. It was cooooooold. We were met with 27° temps as we loaded our packs and started up the mountain. We each had +50lb packs so we were slow moving up the trail in the dark. We followed Holmes Cave Trail for 3/4 of a mile before veering off on a semi-worn outfitters trail. It was a steep mile climb to get to our camp site below Angle Mountain. The sky started to lighten as we made our final push up to Dry Pond.
We arrived at Dry Pond, dropped our packs and searched for a place to pitch our tents. We found a nice little spot at 10,000ft tucked away in the trees. We climbed the hill above our site to hang our food and got a great view of the sun over the North Breccia Cliffs.
Since we were in the heart of grizzly country… we took extra precaution with our food and our tent site (a lil electric fence with some jingle bells) and made sure we kept bear spray and a pistol on us at all times around camp.
Once we got settled, Michael went scouting for hunting spots and I went exploring the surrounding mountains!
We were hunting in the Bridger-Teton National Forest but less than a mile away from the Bridger-Teton Wilderness area. Outside of Holmes Cave Trail that we came in on, there were no trails. It was more of a “choose your own adventure” type of area. I studied the area before coming and saw that there were a ton of nameless peaks so my intentions were simple: strap on a pack with enough calories to spend 4-5hrs exploring from the camp site and don’t get eaten by a grizzly.
I mostly followed the ridge lines tagging peaks.
When I decided I wanted to go hit another one, I’d just drop down in the valley and run in the open fields until I found an approach I wanted to take.
It was surreal being alone in the high country. It’s just vast, wild openness that is itching to be explored. I found it hard to comprehend that when I looked North, it was just wild national forest all the way to Yellowstone.
The lack of sleep and dehydration from the drive finally caught up to me. I was struggle busing during the final climb back up to camp but what an incredibly rewarding 5hrs of moving through the wilderness exploring and peak bagging.
After a quick nap, Michael came back from his evening hunt. We had a water source a half a mile or so from camp, but it would’ve taken forever to filter the amount of water we needed. So instead, I bounced down the 2 miles to the truck with an empty pack, loaded up 16 water bottles, a few beers and hiked back up under a hazy, blood red sun.
This kinda muling was half the reason I was here! If Michael were to kill a deer or bear, I was gonna make the multiple trips (if necessary) to help haul the meat off the mountain.
Thursday: What Up Holmes?
Michael had gotten up early again to hunt, but I kinda just slept in (6am) and watched the sun rise while enjoying breakfast. I packed my vest and left out from Camp Angle to explore the Holmes Cave area. I had connected another part of Holmes Cave Trail the previous day in order to link another off trail peak, but since it was the only actual trail in the area I thought it would be nice to atleast see what it was all about.
I came across 2 rugged looking ladies on horseback…
“You out here by yourself?”
“Yep. Just out exploring a bit.”
“Brave soul. What part of Wyoming are you from?”
“I’m not. I’m from Alabama.”
“ALABAMA?! You’re a long way from home son. Be careful out here. It’s grizzly country.”
Apparently… it’s grizzly country. Michael’s brother actually got charged by a grizzly up on Angle Mountain a few years ago when he was guiding a hunt! Thankfully I’d not seen a bear… had seen a good bit of bear poop… but no actual bear. I continued down Holmes and it eventually opened into a beautiful field with a steady stream running through the middle. I dipped my hands into the ice cold water and splashed the back of my neck and face. Other than a wet wipe whore bath, I hadn’t showered in 3 days.
The trail ended at the Cave. It was not too turrrble impressive… just a hole where water dove into the ground. I’m sure the Cave itself is cool, but on the surface it didn’t hold my attention. I followed a barely visible outfitters trail out past Holmes and climbed a short peak up above it. I soaked in the view of Simpson’s Peak and Smokestack Mountain.
After wondering around an alpine lake a bit, I went back down and reconnected with Holmes.
The North Breccia Cliffs is a staggering wall of rock that was constantly in our site. I thought it would be cool to climb em, but couldn’t find any beta on routes up. From Holmes, I ventured off trail to connect 2 peaks that appeared to be leading to a saddle that could potentially connect me to Breccia.
I climbed both and traversed the small spine on one of the no named peaks.
I cliffed out but saw where I could drop down to connect Breccia. Breccia looked like way more trouble (and probably out of my skill range) than it was worth and I didn’t pack enough calories to make the trek up. I hung out on the rocky spine a bit and soaked in the landscape before making my way off trail back towards Camp Angle.
I just still couldn’t get over the vastness that this place brings… its awe inspiring to say the least. I get the appeal and draw to this type of terrain.
Before wrapping up another 4hr outing and heading back to camp, I decided to dive down into the bowl Michael had been hunting and take a outfitters trail that overlooked our camp.
We ate dinner together then I tagged along on an evening hunt.
As you can tell from my backwards hat and $.99 sunglasses that had “I love dolphins” sketched in sharpie along the side that I found on the side of the road near the Pinhoti back in Alabama, I’m obviously a #pro hunter.
We didn’t see a single animal so we retired back to Camp Angle for some late night coffee.
Friday: Disappointment Peak
I think Michael’s alarm sounded at 4:30am, but I didn’t budge until 4:42am. The original trip itinerary had us leaving out on Wednesday the 16th and not returning until Saturday the 26th. We were gonna hunt for 5 days and then Michael got us a room at Togwatee Lodge for 3 nights so we could relax after 5 nights in the backcountry. During one of those days, I had planned to do the 39 mile Teton Crest Trail. Since it’s point to point, I figured it would be the perfect time to see it without having to find a shuttle. But alas, best laid plans right? Things change and we adapt. So instead of a 10-12hr run across the park, I needed something quicker but still exhilarating… Disappoint Peak.
Around 5am, we shared a cup of coffee, I packed some trash in my pack and I started the 2 mile descent back to the truck at the trailhead. 4 hunters on horseback were heading in for a morning hunt and gave me a confused look at the bottom.
“You coming down the mountain at this hour? Usually folks heading up!”
It was about a 30 minute drive to the GTNP from the trailhead in Bridger-Teton. When I finally got service an array of text messages came through. I spent the drive responding to a few and checking in on anything I’d missed, but it was nice being disconnected for a bit.
Typically, when you hit the long stretch of road, the Tetons become these towering entities in the skyline, but because of the wildfire haze, you could barely make out their silhouette. Thankfully it cleared up a bit when I got to Lupine Meadows.
The parking lot was already filling as I popped the tailgate down and started packing my vest. There was a healthy mix of people in lawn chairs listening to the elk bugle in the valley, hikers and those who look to be heading out to climb. I forced on a light jacket since it was hovering around 32° but knew it would only last a mile or so. I quickly warmed up by the time I hit the switchbacks.
I’d only been up this trail once before but felt like I knew it well. After 2 miles, I arrived at the Garnet Canyon / Amphitheater Lake junction.
A few years ago I had taken the trail up to Garnet Canyon and linked the Middle and South Teton when me and Beau had come out for the Rut 50k, but this time I took the trail towards the lakes. The first lake I came to was Surprise Lake (9540ft). The glassy water was breathtaking! It’s hard to believe the reflection!
After a few minutes at Surprise, I started up towards Amphitheater. Instead of going straight there, I ventured up the hill a bit and got a good look at the canyon, Disappointment Peak and the Grand before I ran down to Amphitheater Lake to bask in its splendor.
I knew the route I needed to take was to the left of the lake, but wanted to venture around the right side since I wouldn’t be back for a bit. I eventually made my way back down to the lake and started the steep climb up towards the Lake Ledges.
I couldn’t find much beta on the route for Disappointment, so I knew it may take some route finding. There was a lil chute where I could see places where it was obvious that roped climbers took. I started up and got to a move that was out of my comfort zone. I feel like if I was roped or not 15-20 feet up, I would’ve made an attempt on the slight launch, but being a mountain athlete has learned me a few things: (1) never fight the mountain, the mountain has nothing personal against you and treats everyone the same, (2) never be too prideful to turn back (3) light is fast, fast is safe, (4) someone is waiting for your safe return (5) don’t die.
Frustrated, or should I say… Disappointed (I’m hilarious I know)… I down climbed and reassessed. I found another route that seemed to grant access to the Lake Ledges.
I slowly picked my way up and around a few heart pounding exposed areas, but eventually made it to the small coulior. It flatted out a bit before the final push / scramble up to the 11,617 summit.
Hands down, Disappointment Peak has to be the BEST and most REWARDING view of the Teton range.
The Grand is right in your face and you get a panoramic view of Nez Perce, Cloudveil, South. Middle, Grand, Owen and Teewinot.
I spent a little time at the top feeling small and thankful before heading down the mountain.
Since I now knew the route, the trip down was quick and hiccup free. I got down from the summit to Amphitheater Lake in about 30 minutes and spent the next hour dodging hikers on the quick descent back to the truck. The mid morning crowds were so heavy, it felt like I was dodging folks on Alum Cave dropping down LeConte!
I got back to the car around noon and headed to find a place to chill for a few hours. Dornan’s Pizza didn’t open until 2p and I had promised Michael we’d have a delicious meal for our last night on the mountain.
“Dornan’s Pizza this is Gracie.”
“Hey Gracie! I want to place an order for a large pizza… preferably one that has the most meat on it.”
It was so dang hard not to sneak a piece, but I didn’t want to ruin our civilized, family dinner. I swung by a lil gas station to grab a six pack before loading up the pack and hiking the 2 miles back up to camp.
We sat around and swapped the days adventures over beer and pizza before retiring early to our tents.
Saturday: Down, Down, Down
Michael started getting his hunting gear prepared right at 5am, but I didn’t roll out of bed until closer to 6am. All I had to do today was have breakfast, drink some coffee and break down camp.
I hiked up to get our food bag and enjoyed a nice warm cup of coffee. The temps had been really nice. Typically, it would be 30s in the morning but by noon it was in the 60s. I spent most of my days comfortably in shorts and a t-shirt, but this morning was cold. The wind had picked up and it was overcast. I went back to start slowly breaking down camp but kept my tent up to have some reprieve from the cold wind.
Unfortunately, Michael came back empty handed but just in time… the snow was rolling in and it was already sleeting as we started breaking down camp.
We bid farewell to Camp Angle and started down the mountain for the final time.
It was raining and cold by the time we got the bottom. Michael’s brother Randy surprised us and got us a room at Lava Mountain Lodge. We sat down at the bar and had a big, thick cheeseburger and colbeer.
It felt damn good to take a hot shower after 5 days without one. We decided to head back towards Moran to see Michael’s brother and family before they set out on their hunt. They’d planned to elk hunt up on the same mountain as we did, but they were packing in horses. The whole hunting thing and culture is so fascinating and sooooo far from anything I’ve ever known. It was cool to get a glimpse into that world.
After we saw them off, we went down to Dubois for dinner with Brent (one of Michael’s hunting buddies from Texas) and his family before retiring back to the lodge.
Sunday: Back 2 Bama
We woke up before the sun to go scope out some property in Debois that Michael had been eying. For the record… I wouldn’t be upset if he got said property and I could spend a month or so out in the big mountains every summer…
We got a text from Randy while we were eating a delicious breakfast at Cowboy Cafe…
“White out snow last night. Had to beat snow off tent. Lightning popped all night.”
Looked like we got off the mountain at the right time!
Now I’m here… in Nebraska… watching dust devils sweep across the non mountainous terrain… debating whether or not we are gonna push through the night and try and tackle our 26hr Bama-Teton record.
Don’t get me wrong… it’s a vibe… but it’s not my vibe. If I lived in Nebraska… I’d probably just end up changing my name to Izach and leading a clan of deranged children…
I’m beyond thankful to have gotten the opportunity to go on this trip. Not only did I get to spend time in some of the most beautiful backcountry in America…
And visit one of the most awe-inspiring mountain ranges again…
I got to spend some quality time with an incredible human. I litrully can’t wait to do this again.
Till next time Wyoming… I’ll be thinking of your wild, remote spaces till we meet again.
I look down at my watch as I take another sip of coffee. 1:30am.
Covered in mountain grime and muck, I sit silently on the Pilot sidewalk watching 2 stray cats nibble from a tin can as the rain pitter patters just a few feet away. After driving 3.5hrs, I just needed a break to stretch my legs before driving the final 2hrs home.
To most, exhausted, bloodshot eyes may not seem like a sign of purification but there’s breeds out there that live differently. Maybe it’s obsession? Maybe it’s a primal connection? Maybe it’s something flowing through my blood? Not that I’m even remotely looking for the core reasons anymore why I pursue an endurance focused lifestyle… but the lack of sleep and body abuse for these all out Smoky Mountains binges feels right and almost always cleanse my soul.
I pull into our driveway shortly after 3am. The only movement in our little neighborhood at this hour is the hungry stray cat sitting on our front porch waiting to be fed. I sneak into the house, take a quick shower and slide into bed.
The past 60hrs have been a blur. I punched out of work at 4pm on Tuesday afternoon and drove straight to the Smokies. In order to work 40hrs a week, take my last few remaining graduate classes and start to chip away at the 600hr internship the counseling program requires, I had to hop back into the retail world so now my “weekends” sometimes fall on Wednesday/Thursday instead of Saturday/Sunday.
I stopped right outside of the park and got changed in an empty, well lit parking lot to avoid fumbling through my gear bag at a blacked out trailhead. A cop pulled up and slowly circled the parking lot as I was pulling off my shirt. I waved. He glared. He just wanted to make his presence known before leaving the area. Sleeping in empty parking lots is sort of frowned upon in the area.
Since I was about to lose service, I sent a goodnight text to the wifey before heading to the trailhead.
Alum Cave is one of the most scenic trails in the Smokies. It’s absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. Since you’re getting beautiful views as early as mile 2, it’s also one of the BUSIEST trails in the park. When is it not busy? Midnight.
I loooooove this trail. LeConte was the first real mountain I ever ran. Some of my best life memories are held captive in LeConte’s ancient topography so this mountain holds a special place in my heart… and now on my chest.
I had no time goals heading up the mountain but wanted to push up the mountain quickly. The fresh air was intoxicating. A storm had just rolled through the area so sporadic lightning was flashing illuminating the distant ridges. My mountain was still and peaceful.
The whole trip up the mountain was surreal and honestly, if it weren’t for the Strava data… I wouldn’t be entirely certain that run actually happened. It’s hard to explain, but it just felt like someone was there with me… to the point I kept having to look around to actually make sure I was alone! Not in a scary way… or even a nervous way… but just a calm, warm presence.
I somehow managed to make it up to the summit in under an hour, quickly tossed a rock on the pile and started the trip back to the trailhead. By the time I passed the lodge again, I had given into the comforting feeling and just went with it. I entered into a flow state with whoever or whatever was with me and before I even realized… I was back at my car. I can’t remember any details of the conversation I had with my flow partner, but whatever we telepathically discussed/conversed about felt intimate and genuine. So many weird things like this have happened to me that I’ve stopped trying to seek answers. Now I just let these things occur and approach them with an open heart and mind. The Smokies are so incredibly transcendental and magical that nothing surprises me within its boundaries.
After cooling off in the parking lot and changing into some dry clothes, I drove out of the park and found an empty parking lot. I sent the “I’m safe!” text to Kati around 1am, crawled into the back seat and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. Sleep didn’t come. I would drift off for about 15-30 minutes before waking up hot and sweaty. Around 4am I decided to drive back up the mountain to a higher, cooler elevation. I slept for a solid hour before popping the hatch and getting ready for the morning’s adventure.
It was actually a surprisingly cool Wednesday morning as I connected to the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Maybe it felt “cool” because Alabama’s already 90° by 10am. Ugh.
My original plan had me going up Sugarland, but after reworking the route in my head, it would’ve been a long 26 mile day. 4 days prior to my trip up to the Smokies, Ash had presented a last minute idea which consisted of a +40 mile route that connected two of our favorite mountains for Thursday. Since I didn’t get much sleep the night before, and I knew I would have to drive home after said +40 miles… I opted for a shorter 11 mile version of my intended Wednesday route. The main focus was to connect Sugarland to Chimney Tops via the off trail manway, so I didn’t really care how I got to the manway… as long as I just got there.
I located the manway turnoff pretty easily but since I had only covered 3 or so miles, I decided to pop down just to explore the Sugarland Trail a bit. I’m so so glad I took Matty Fierce’s feedback about the trail being overgrown…. it was disgustingly high/overgrown so I didn’t venture too much further before turning around to head back to the manway.
On the way back, I caught a stunning view of Chimney Tops basking in the morning light…
By no means was the 1/2 mile manway hard to traverse… it was just… slow… due to the overgrowth…
The manway offered one small vantage point of Chimney Tops…
I eventually popped out onto Chimney Tops Trail to a family of (4) all holding cameras.
“Ah man! We thought you were gonna be a bear!”
I apologized for not being a bear before making my way over to scramble to the summit.
Technically…. there are sections of Chimney Tops that are still closed… but… the summit was just how I remembered it pre-fire. Each hand/foot hold was secure and stable which made for easy upwards movement in the warm morning sun.
After a few minutes on the summit, I down climbed back to the trail and started my descent. The “disappointed I wasn’t a bear family” stopped me on the way down and said they snapped a few pics of me climbing and would like to send them my way! That was a cool and unexpected momento from the day!
I took the beautiful and always wet Road Prong Trail up to the AT…
The sleepiness set in when I got back to the car. I drove down to Newfound Gap to grab a signal and again texted the “I’m safe!” message to the wifey. I still had a few hours to kill before Ash would be in the area. Part of me wanted to tag on another trip up Alum Cave to see the views I missed the previous night, but after the overcrowded display of tourists packed at the trail head, I decided to just head on over to Townsend to snack and relax a bit.
When Ash finally arrived, we hopped in the back of the familiar white Cowboy Tubing van and got shuttled upriver for a relaxing float back to our cars. We spent the rest of the afternoon/evening driving across the park stashing aid, almost “accomplishing” the great feat of hiking up the paved pathway to Clingmans, and then rushing to grab some Five Guys before they closed at 10pm!
The next morning Ash texted from her room…
“Dy need to get in my car?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Okay I’m finishing up.”
Dammit. I missed my alarm. I scrambled to throw on my running clothes, haphazardly threw all my shit into my duffel bag and rushed downstairs to Ash waiting in the car.
“What took ya so long?”
Though we didn’t have a real start time, we still wanted to be moving on the trail before sunrise. We figured the route would take 12-15hrs depending on our movement. Typically our runs together… don’t go as smoothly as planned… so we didn’t set any sort of time goal. We just wanted an enjoyable and fun outing connecting two of our favorite mountains (LeConte and Thunderhead/Rocky Top).
After slamming some over-sugared cold brew, we set off with headlamps up Bullhead around 6:20am. As the sun started to light the sky we got some pretty spectacular sunrise views and saw a playful bear bounding up the trail ahead of us.
Ash had been telling me how gorgeous Bullhead was post-fire and honestly I was blown away by the new beauty this trail brought! I hadn’t been up Bullhead in probably 5 or so years!
The miles ticked away easily as moved smoothly and comfortably up Bullhead. We made a quick stop by the lodge to refill water. Since the humidity was high and the sun was sure to warm things up, we knew we needed to over hydrate and be mindful of our water intake on the longer route. After a quick fill, we made the side quest over to Cliff Tops and Myrtle Point.
Newfound (mile 16ish) was already swarming by the time we arrived at 11am. We dug the cooler out of the brush, sipped some Gatorade, refilled our waters, grabbed a handful of Airhead Xtremes and hit the AT.
The stretch from Newfound to Clingmans has never been my favorite. Maybe it’s just the slight incline and relentless, rugged terrain that just brings the mood down… but despite the deep thunder and consistent rain storm… we stayed moving and chipper most of the way up.
We were in the drizzly clouds by the time we reached Clingmans. We snuck off into the woods to grab our last aid stop of the day and got a few peculiar looks from the tourists. We tried to down our Cokes as quickly as possibly to shorten the amount of shiver time. Even in the heart of summer, when it’s raining and you’re at 6k feet… it can get cold!
It only took a few minutes of running to get warm. The rain let up and the humidity set back in quickly after leaving Clingmans. Weirdly enough, despite the rain, we got pretty good views in every single section of the park!
Once we got situated and in a groove along the AT, Ash threw on the music to help set the pace. We passed a few hikers while some old rap was playing…
“Please, ignore the Soulja Boy.”
The 2 hikers looked at me as if I was THE Soulja Boy that Ash was referring to… obviously they weren’t the type to have cranked that Soulja Boy and Superman’d dat hoe in the clurb… their loss.
The climb up to Thunderhead was relentless. By the time we reached the summit, we had covered 37 miles with 11,000ft of climbing!
It started drizzling again as we dropped down to Rocky Top, but the rocky outcropping was the last significant piece of our journey.
Like Alum, we’ve done Rocky Top enough to descend with our eyes closed. As the sun began to set, we started the comfortably familiar descent down the AT to Bote.
We hit a groove coming down. On our way to Rocky Top I might have purposely suggested we would need headlamps for the descent… but this was mostly just to light a fire in Ash so she would attack the descent… which she did… scoffing at my headlamp nonsense.
43 miles and 13hrs33mins later… we hit the pavement near Cades Cove where my car was thankfully still parked.
We drove the windy road back to Ash’s car at Bullhead and changed out of our nasty clothes into our custom made finishers shirts.
I hit the road at around 10pm to start the 5.5hr drive back home. I could already feel how tired I would be for my closing shift the next day but wouldn’t trade these types of mountain outings for the world.
I’m starting to really really want to live closer to these mountains. 5.5hrs is just too far. Kati and I have always talked about moving out of Bama towards the Appalachia, and fingres crossed… when I graduate next May we can start seriously making plans.
These mountains feel like home to me. They’re where I feel most connected to both worlds (physical and spiritual). My thoughts and heart seem to stay transfixed in those smoky silhouetted ridges. I don’t expect many to understand that type of connection to a place, but there are few out there they do understand… and those few souls make me feel a little less like a crazy, obsessed, mountain addict.
“Two friends that have met on a mountain may always claim that as their level, and their souls may always sail out over the hills that are hard to climb.” Sidney Lanier Tiger Lillies
I love shoes. “Shoes” was actually the first word that ever escaped my lungs. Not mom. Not dad. Not supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It was shoes. OMG SHOES.
Why shoes? I think it’s because I came to the quick realization that if my parents were putting shoes on my feet, it meant we were going on an adventure. I mean that adventure could be the grocery store or the playground… it didn’t really matter, it meant we were off to see great places! Hmmm… maybe that’s why my favorite book is “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”
Like most mountain ultra runners, I’ve gone through my fair share of shoes… putting thousands upon thousands of miles on little pieces of rubber over the past decade. Despite how many shoes I go through… every time I get a new pair of shoes, I’ll still dive my nose into the foot hole and take a big satisfying inhale of that intoxicating new shoe smell.
I’m sure there’s others out there like me, the ones that kinda get super sad and nostalgic when a shoe life comes to its end. Personally, I’ve always had trouble letting go of shoes because they hold such wonderful memories. Shoes are there for the greatest of times and the worst of times. They’re there when you accomplish goals and when you come up short. They’re like shadows.
Each time the life of a shoe ends, it pains me to know that they must leave my life. I used keep all of them, but that’s just unnecessary clutter, impractical and it got down right disturbing…
Me and Kati were having coffee the other day, scoping out the new Wild Cross shoes that Salomon sent over to test out, when I brought up the need to cull my shoes and reorder some new rides for the summer. Most of the shoes in the current rotation have over 500 miles on them and are starting to wear down. Typically I can get 600-800 miles from a pair before starting to feel those tiny minor aches in the ole joints indicating the need for some fresh kicks. By the second cup of coffee I started talking about how hard it was to let go of some of those shoes and she offered up the suggestion, “maybe you could do a sort of obituary for each shoe? OMG! A SHOEBITUARY!”
So instead of holding onto the shoes I love so dearly, I can do a short obituary detailing the shoes and some of the adventures they took me on! Sadly I won’t be able to recount the last 10yrs of wonderful shoe experiences, but going forward… I’ll be writing a shoebituary for all the shoes I retire or lay to rest.
In Loving Memory of:
“Rouge Ryders” – Salomon Sense Ride 3
Rough Ryders (Salomon Sense Ride 3 – Black), age 492 miles, passed away on Wednesday, June 8, 2020 at Falling Rock. It was sweltering summer day in Alabama with temperatures in the 90s with the humidity at 97%.
Rough Ryders was born early Spring 2020 and is the 3rd and newest generation of the Sense Ride shoe. RR enjoyed long, technical mountain outings and the highlight of her life came on May 16, 2020 when she covered a self-supported 44 mile loop in the Great Smoky Mountains called Gatlindome.
RR spent most of her days roaming the hills of Oak Mountain State Park and aided in leading hikes for the Make a Wish Trailblaze Challenge. Another life event for RR was the 4-day Smoky Mountain adventure binge called Smokefest.
Cause of death: broken lace holder
Pros: Super cushioned! Enjoyed the added padding for longer outings. The upper was very breathable and I found that the shoe drained very well. At first glance, I thought the shoe would be a bit heavy but found that it wasn’t noticeable in the long run. The Sense Ride 3 fit true to size (I wear a size 9 in practically all Salomon) and felt it had plenty of toe room. The shoe gripped wonderfully on technical terrain, but found the cushioning made running fire roads / asphalt surprisingly comfortable!
Cons: Honestly, it’s really hard to find anything wrong with this shoe! The toe cap of the shoe started to come undone at approximately 150 miles. It didn’t really affect the performance of the shoe, but was annoyed it started coming undone so soon. The upper is extremely breathable which led to multiple small tears in the upper. Again, didn’t really affect performance, but did allow small debris to enter the shoe.
Overall: I was surprised at how much I loved this shoe! I actually just placed an order another pair! I got right at 500 miles out of the shoe but feel if the lace holder didn’t shred, I could’ve probably got 200 or more miles on them. The cushion was a MAJOR plus and would highly recommend the shoe to any type of trail runner. This shoe gets a9/10 for me!
Per usual, one sole jackass parked his truck in the middle of the road to get out and get a closer look at wildlife. We not-so-patiently sat in line as a flurry of Honky McHonkersons laid on the horn to try and get Truck Daddy to move. This wasn’t anything new. This is typical tourist behavior at Cades. You just have to let them gawk and snap pics of the beats or even worse the turkeys… and slowly creep around the loop. Since I luckily got to leave work a few hours early, we got a chance to snag a bonus run and start Smokefest a day early. As soon as we neared the back end of Cades Cove, we left the asphalt and sped down the gravel road out to the trailhead. We quickly stripped down, grabbed our headlamps and started the trek up Gregory Ridge Trail.
Given our late start time, we knew we wouldn’t see the sun set from the top, but figured we may get some afterglow. We were met by a soft purple-ish~orange glow as we reached Gregory Bald.
We stayed up top just long enough to get chilled before descending in the dark.
Practically everything was closed by the time we got out to Townsend so we headed straight to Little River Campground. The staff was kind enough to let us check in late and left our registration taped to the office door. We quietly set up camp at a spot near the river, had a few beers and hit the sack around 12:30am.
Smokefest Day 2 AM: Rocky Top
12 miles / ~ 3700ft gain
Morning came quick. We rolled out of bed at 5:30am (4:30am Bama time), packed up camp and headed back out to Cades for an out and back to Rocky Top.
We couldn’t have asked for a prettier morning to kick off the running weekend. We soaked in the views and blooming flaming azaleas at Spence Field…
And then pressed up to the summit of Rocky Top for a lil snack.
It was blue skies and sunshine all the way back down the mountain.
For lunch, we drove into Gatlinburg and grabbed a juicy bacon cheeseburger from the Smoky Mountain Brewery. Since summer classes are jam packed, I had to take a break from playing and squeeze in a little bit of grad homework. Thankfully I got to take my 2nd exam a day early and didn’t have much work to do while in the mountains.
We drove out to Cosby Run campground after lunch to set up camp. We thought it would be better to go ahead and have camp set up so we wouldn’t have to fool with anything after our second outing.
Smokefest Day 2 PM: Big Creek Loop
16.6 miles / ~ 4300ft gain
After checking in and throwing up the tent and hammock, we made our way out to Baxter Creek Trailhead on the east side of the park. I really enjoy this side of the park. It’s got it’s on specific mystique and my heart holds many great memories/experiences tucked away in its lush environment.
Baxter Creek Trail is a beautifully brutal booger of a trail. Its a relentless uphill climb for 6.2 miles without much reprieve but the enchanting mossy backdrop can steal your mind for a bit if ya let it.
Since Smokefest wasn’t about how quickly we could run up and down mountains, we took our time and enjoyed the afternoon. We made a quick pit stop to FTS (from the source) some water near the summit…
And eventually made it up to the rickety fire tower!
I knew better than to try and get Matty Fierce to scale up through the roof, so I just went ahead and got myself a lil clearer look from the tippy top 😉
After the climb down, MF decided he wanted to head back down Baxter so I continued on with the loop solo. I moved along the ridge for about 1.5 miles until I hit Swallow Fork. I was surprised at the beauty of Swallow! I had envisioned a more overgrown, rocky trail, but was surprised with how enjoyable the trail was to descend. The peaceful and quiet trail gave me a few miles to get lost in my head and let my mind wander a bit.
But it was game on when I hit Big Creek Trail. The smoother path and gentle downhill allowed for 5 quick miles back to the car. And… I saw (and hurdled) my first ever snake in the Smokies. I will see a snake almost every single summer outing in Alabama, but have never come across one in the Smokies. I hit the parking lot to find a dusty note etched into the back of Matty Fierce’s Rover that simply read “Creek.” MF was soaking his feet in the creek as I fumbled down to sit with him and rinse off. On the way back to camp, we stopped at Cobly Knob Cafe and Pizza to refuel.
The biggest and maybe only win for Cosby Run Campground: real hot showers. After a much needed cleanup, we tried to turn in at a decent hour so we wouldn’t be too sleep deprived for a sunrise outing.
Smokefest Day 3 AM: Mount Cammerer Loop
15 miles / ~ 3200ft gain
It was everything I had not to just hit snooze and snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag. 4:20am (3:20am Bama time) left me less than perky.
Nevertheless, I changed into a pair of shorts, stumbled out of my tent and gathered up what I’d need for the morning. Cosby Run Campground is precisely 2 Pop Tarts away from GSMNP’s Cosby Campground. We parked at the ranger station, loaded our vests and left out into the darkness to the hoot of a solitary owl.
We took the 2.5 mile Low Gap climb slow and steady and hit the AT as the sky started to illuminate.
We made it to the fire tower just after the sun broke the horizon! It was a spectacular sunrise!
We shared a summit breakfast… which was a lovely Dr. Pepper that Matty Fierce had brought along.
2 local Adams were up snapping pics of the sunrise (@adamgravett & @smokyshiker) and warned us of a copperhead hiding in a rock cropping a ways down the AT. Sure enough… we saw a snakeskin and a nice little note taped to the area! Thankfully we didn’t see the snake.
After a brief stint on the AT, we connected Lower Cammerer Trail for the flowy 7.5 miles back to the trailhead.
We knew it was time to leave the area when we came across a Bigfoot imprint…
We headed back to the campground for a quick shower before heading into town for another bacon cheeseburger.
After stuffing our faces, we drove up to Newfound Gap, pulled out our chairs and relaxed a bit in the sea of tourists snapping pics around us.
Smokefest Day 3 PM: Mt LeConte
17 miles / ~ 4200ft gain
Per usual, the AT out of NFG was PACKED. We steadily weaved in and out of the swarm and eventually hit Boulevard. To make up for the “veto” MF and OJG threw on me last time, we made a quick side trip up to the Jumpoffs.
I scurried off trail for a bit to scope out a potential future adventure before we headed back down to Boulevard to resume our push up the mountain.
Outside of Alum, Boulevard is my 2nd favorite route up LeConte. For whatever reason, I just love the feel of the trail and the way it flows.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather up top!
We took the spur trail up to Cliff Tops for a lil Red Bull break.
We popped down to the Lodge to refill our flasks before starting back to NFG.
Being up top, I couldn’t pass up a quick trip out to Mytrle Point before hitting the descent myself. MF was only a half mile ahead of me but he made me work to catch up to him! I’m thankful he stopped to dunk his head in some water. As always, the beauty of Boulevard didn’t disappoint.
The air was chilled at 5000ft by the time we got back to the car. We enjoyed the vast views of the mountains as we drove down to Cherokee for some Arby’s sandwiches. We monched our way all the way to the Nantahala.
Smokefest Day 4: Bone Valley
7 mile paddle / 16 mile run
The alarm sounded. 5:15am (4:15am Bama time). I heard MF’s voice pierce the still darkness, “Still dedicated?”
I let out a rough, unmotivated “Still dedicated.”
We loaded up the boats and headed out to Cable Cove. 1 canned Coke and 1 Arby’s roast beef sandwich later, we drug out the boats, checked our gear and began the 3.5 mile paddle over to the ghost town of Proctor.
You would’ve thought we were drunk off our asses the way we started our paddle. It took a solid mile before we stopped turning cool 180 tricks and got the groove of paddling flat water in river boats. Thankfully, a beautifully sunrise masked our disgusting paddling skills.
When MF planned out this Smokefest, he had originally planned to have us ferry across Fontana Lake to start the run, but I’m super glad that didn’t work out. The purity of the self-propelled aspect of this adventure is what made this outing so special.
After the 1hr20min paddle, we hit the shoreline and swapped one vest for another.
A few months back we did the Lakeshore Traverse so we didn’t feel the need to pop down to see Proctor, so we headed up Hazel Creek towards Bone Valley. HC was an easy, double track run next to a flowing creek filled with fly fishermen… a very welcomed change from all the steep climbing and descending we put in the previous days.
5.3 miles later we finally saw a sign we’d both wanted to see for years.
Bone Valley is one of the more remote places in the park and everything about the area made it feel that way. The trail crosses water 5 times on the way to the old Hall cabin.
The whole area had a weird, exciting energy. For whatever reason, I kept getting eerie chills and sensations. I briefly explored the cabins interior and surroundings.
The family that owned this cabin and property had a piece of the most magical places on earth.
MF opted for a Red Bull, I opted to make the climb up the hill to the family cemetery. Inhale oronabkt
We linked back up and headed back down Bone Valley Trail. I figured it would some time before I’d be back in the Proctor area, so I took advantage of the time and hit Bone Valley cemetery as well.
Hitting the cemetery meant having to bust my ass and drop some hot miles to catch back up to MF. It took about 4 miles but I eventually linked back up with him for the final mile back to the boats. After a dip in the lake, we took to the water for the 3.5 mile paddle back.
By the numbers… we covered ~ 88 mountain running miles w/ ~ 19,000ft gain and 7 paddle miles in the 4 day Inaugural Smokefest. The only thing I think we’d change would be the downtime. It would’ve been nice to relax a lil bit more and maybe drink a few more colbeers or brown water in a river somewhere… but honestly, this trip was one of the most fulfilling weekends I’ve ever spent in the Smokies and I’ll forever cherish these memories. Can’t wait to start planning Smokefest 2.