The orange in Matty Fierce’s shorts popped like the autumn leaves as he moved with ease along the single track pushing towards the top. I stopped to remove my long sleeves. I paused momentarily to feel the contrast of the warm sun and cool breeze on my skin.
This was my first trip back to the Smokies since December and movement (especially uphill) did not come easy. Camus’ words flooded the space in my head…
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
I tucked my shirt away, lowered my head and continued the march towards the heights…
I had missed this feeling… feeling small… feeling ancient… feeling connected to something much, much bigger than myself.
No matter how long I stay away from the mountains, they are always waiting with arms wide open.
But what drives us to push towards the heights? What pushes us to race the setting sun…
In hopes of watching the sun drop below the horizon?
At what point does the night no longer feel threatening and we become comfortable in the darkness?
When do we become content with discomfort because we know the beauty it may yield?
I believe a few of us have come to truly understand these things are momentary. These moments… this life… it’s all fleeting… but the beautiful part is the fact the we have the opportunity to choose how we spend these precious moments.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
We have the power of choice and we actively make choices each day. Bad things happen. Good things happen. That’s the ebb and flow of life. We can choose to embrace the feeling… the discomfort… the happiness… the sadness… or… we can let those circumstances define us and choose to take no action. Inaction is a choice.
The truth is… we’re all going to die. Momento Mori. I can honestly say a day doesn’t pass where I don’t think about death and the essence of existence. The point of this daily reminder isn’t to be morbid… the point is to inspire, motivate and clarify life and it’s purpose.
But for me… I’m reminded of the haunting words from Maynard Keenan that are etched in sun-faded ink under my skin…
“I am surrendering to the gravity and the unknown. Catch me, heal me, lift me back up to the sun I choose to live.”
A certain intimacy lies in grand adventures and travel. There’s just something that bonds people when seeing beautiful places or doing hard shit together.
Perhaps it’s the collective feeling of awe and amazement when staring out into the High Country in Colorado from 14,000ft.
Or that feeling of smallness when gazing upon something as majestic as the Tetons…
Or that feeling of a cold beer and pizza after spending 5 days camping in the Wyoming backcountry…
Or a quick weekend trip up to Appalachia to break up the monotony of every day life…
Whatever it may be… I feel like you instinctively grow closer with people in which you spend this type of intentional time.
Trail running has blessed me beyond belief. Over the course of the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to be an ambassador and sponsored by several amazing companies. From travel to gear, I’ve received much more than I feel like I deserve. No matter how much hard work you put in and how much passion you have for something, the cold hard truth is… you don’t always get to reap the benefits and rewards.
About 6 years ago, I remember coming to the realization of like, “damn, this is pretty amazing. I wish I could somehow give back and connect people to the outdoors.”
So I started opening up heart and mind to that idea. I started putting those intentions into the universe through thought, prayer and moving meditation. I feel like it’s one thing to put intentions out there, however, if you’re not actively observing and paying attention, you may miss something the universe is trying to show you.
A few weeks passed and I received a random email from a women I’d never met before. She explained that she was going to start a new program in Alabama based around a program in North Carolina that she recently went and observed and volunteered. We agreed to meet up for drinks to discuss the event in a but more detail. I think I was halfway through my first beer when I was like… “Yea… I’m in.”
That random ass woman… well her name is Valerie.
And we’ve been bringing sexy back to the trails and training Make a Wish hikers since 2017.
This past weekend I got the opportunity to spend time with Val and 2 other high quality humans that I’ve known for years but haven’t really got to spend much intentional time.
I got into Denver just in time to drop my bags at the hotel and catch a super late dinner with Val, Beebs and Trevor. The next thing I knew… it was 2:30am and we were headed off to Colorado’s Trailblaze Challenge event.
When we got to the trailhead, I strapped on a headlamp, grabbed a handheld and set off into the dark abyss to scope out the 23.8 miles of the Colorado Trail that CO MAW utilizes for their hike.
The trail was gorgeous. I moved along the well groomed western single track as I watched the morning sun illuminate the sky.
I passed through where aid station one was to eventually be set up and began through an exposed section of trail. The sun finally popped it’s head over the ridge line to allow sight in the beautiful valley.
I passed through mile 10 aid station and said hello to the CO volunteers. Since the air was cool, I didn’t need anything other than a squirt of water to top of my handheld. The trail continued as a forest service road for a bit until it turned back into the groomed single track. The BIGGEST difference between the CO and AL route is that AL route on the Pinhoti is waaaaaaaaaay more technical.
I eventually linked up with my MAW crew at mile 23. They had just finished setting up Wish Mile and we all 4 hiked back to the finish together. We made a quick pit stop in Bailey, CO to grab some food. OMG… Bailey is the cutest town. The shops were cute but the town folk were cuter. AND… it had a Sasquatch Museum!
After some hot dogs, we headed back to a few of the aid stations to volunteer with the Colorado chapter. Typically on hike weekends in Alabama, I’m preoccupied with taking care of hikers on the trail by either sweeping, scouting, or spot checking. It was nice to not have that obligation and to be able to work an aid station and chat with the CO volunteers and their hikers! I even met a hiker in CO that was from Athens, AL!
You don’t really get the understanding and scope of how bad ass your own program is until you witness another. AL’s Trailblaze is so much bigger in terms of participant and volunteer size… and honestly… I think it has everything to do with the passion and hard work the AL team brings to the table. Though it takes a village to find this type of success, these 2 women right here are 2 of the most inspiringly hardworking individuals I’ve ever met.
They care a hell of a whole lot and it shows in the success the AL Trailblaze chapter has seen. The AL Trailblaze Challenge almost raised $1,000,000 last year… yes… Dr. Evil… close to a million.
It’s been fascinating and inspiring to watch this grass roots event turn into a magnificent production that’s impacting so many lives.
The one thing I love about these small group trips is the lack of conflict when it comes to deciding what to do next. Y’all wanna grab a drink and go cool off in the cold ass river? “Im down.”
Y’all hungry? “Let’s stop and eat at the next place we come to…”
Y’all wanna wake up super early again and hike a 14er? “In.”
Sunday morning, we’d decided to yet again wake up at an ungodly hour and make our way to a trailhead before the sun.
We collectively marched through the darkness with our sights set on Mt Bierstadt. As we trudged through the darkness, the sky was slowly lightening.
I don’t suppose watching the sun come up from a mountain will ever get old…
We eventually made our way to the tippy top and enjoyed a few minutes taking in the beautiful sights from Bierstadt!
I love the fact that the people that push and expect hard effort from the hikers of Trailblaze don’t just talk the talk… but litrully walk the walk.
They say “you’re known by the company you keep” and the older I get… the more thankful I am for keeping good company.
✌🏼 out Colorado. Hope to see your blue skies again soon.
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.
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