It is absolutely amazing what you can do to your body and how fast it can recover over night. We rise to a beautiful but very cold morning to find our water frozen. We quickly eat our breakfast, pack our gear, fluff the dirt around our site and hit the trail. Today the plan is to hike to Big Creek Campsite 37 where we will spend the night. Warming quickly we shed layers to t-shirt and marvel at the difference a day can make.
Big Creek Trail is a nice wide trail allowing side by side hiking so we happily chatted. About everything. A buddy trail. Nice change from the narrow pass of death we were on yesterday.
There is something that happens when you get off the concrete and outside that is hard to describe. The temperature that you can hardly make it in from the car to your front door, you spend three days in. Food that you would NEVER eat, becomes delicious. Dirt, sweat, scratches and bruises are badges of honor. Wearing the same clothes, no makeup, no hair to fuss with, NO mirrors. Apart from the twinges in your back or knees, you become ageless in a way. Priorities are simple. Water, shelter, nutrition. Your mind is clear. The colors, sounds and textures of the outdoors irons out all the stress wrinkles in your head. I love it…I crave it…
Our hike carries us alongside the rushing Baxter Creek past Midnight Falls and soon to Mouse Falls, full and rushing with the snow melting from the mountain top. Continuing on, we spot snow in the shadows and appreciate our sure footing on this glorious blue sky day. A family coming down the mountain gives us some advice on choosing a dry campsite and we enjoy the rest of the five and a half miles to #38.
Spotting the shiny new bear cables hanging beside the creek, we know we have reached our destination. Scanning the area and heeding the advice of the family, we cross over the creek via a log and find our spot beside the rushing Big Creek. I find two perfect trees for my hammock and Harriett settles on a sunny little patch and the work of camp begins. Each in our own little world, efficiently we make our home for the evening. Water is gathered and filtered. Lunch is prepared and we sit in the makeshift kitchen for lunch.
After a nice break, we head up the trail to explore and come across what I thought looked like treadmills on the side of the trail. The GSMNP Fitness Center… Of course the fitness center back at home doesn’t come equipped with a wheelbarrow and shovel…extra cardio.
Our exploration ends as the trail crosses a deep rapid and we decline crossing and decide to shed our boots and soak feet that have marched close to 18 miles in the clear icy water of Big Creek. What a gift to sit on a rock in the sun surrounded by the Great Smokey Mountains next to a good friend. (are you getting it yet?)
The sun starts to drop and we head back to our campsite for dinner, a small fire and a strategy for tomorrow begins to form. I want to see the top of Mt. Sterling…..This will require an eleven and a half mile hike. Five and a half strenuous up Swallow Fork Trail to Mt. Sterling Ridge and six and a half miles back down the wickedly steep Baxter Creek Trail that we have already slid, bounced and pounded down once (which we had wanted to avoid all together)… FOLLOWED by a four hour drive home….
Harriet says, “Have you ever hiked in the dark?” I say, “ Not if I can avoid it….” and the decision is made that we will wake at 4:00 am, pack up in the dark and hike up to Mt. Sterling Ridge to reach the summit of Mt. Sterling and the famous Fire Tower. Then we will descend once again 6.5 miles of bone jarring, knee dislocating trail to our car. Sounds like a good plan to me…..
THE STRANGE NIGHT
I am a cold sleeper. I hate being cold. Sleeping next to water is cold. So determined to stay warm for the evening, I climb into my hammock,into the Lost Ranger Big Agnes down bag, with my down under quilt, wearing smart wool long johns, montbell down pants borrowed from Dave, my Arc’teryx down jacket and for good measure stick two hand warmers in the pockets along with a giant big square warmer on my tummy. I lay swaying between the trees imagining a government aircraft flying overhead using heat seeking technology seeing this glowing thermal cocoon, which makes me smile and start to drift off to sleep.
Something wakes me. I see a flash through my sleep and open my eyes to pitch black. Then SOMETHING BUMPS ME! Under my hammock SOMETHING HAS BUMPED ME! My hammock is moving so it is not imagined. My body flooded with adrenaline lies rigid and frozen. Unable to hear anything next to the loud water I lay and wait. For what? I don’t know.. To be eaten, abducted by aliens or Big Foot? None of these things occur and eventually my body starts to relax, eyes drift closed and flash…the light again… Strange images fill my head and I consider maybe I need to lay off of Bates Motel when more lights start scanning the campsite.
Grabbing my glasses, I hang off the edge of my hammock and peer beyond my tarp and spot four headlamps across the creek. It is after midnight and four people are attempting to set up camp…. Eventually they settle in but I never quite get back to sleep and soon Harriett calls out and we rise. IN …. THE…. DARK….