Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Side Trip: Tishomingo State Park, MS

As it turned out, Tishomingo State Park was right down the road from the high point--or it would have been, had I not made a right where the sign said to turn left and spent 15 minutes following a gravel road to its end in the Mississippi countryside. Suspecting my error, I did an about-face (well, more like a three-point turn) and backtracked to the main road, where signs for Tishomingo beckoned from across the street.

That park, I must say, was a pleasant surprise, one of only two places on this whole south-central tour I'd care to revisit (along with Mina Sauk Falls in Missouri).

I arrived around midafternoon (on Thursday the 12th, for those of you who like to keep track of dates) and found the park nearly empty--and all the other folks were in RVs, so I had my pick of tent sites. While registering at the front desk, I mentioned to the ranger that I had been to the high point. She apologized for the lackluster display up there--apparently there had been more signs and such, but they'd been taken down due to persistent vandalism. This is why we can't have nice things.

Rather than return to my campsite by the road, I took a trail through the park. The hiking brochure promised rock outcroppings, and the trail delivered.

Highpoint #12: Woodall Mountain, MS (807')

In retrospect, Florida was a turning point in my trip. Out of the Appalachians, the high points were lower and the drives between them longer. I went from hiking an average of five miles a day to driving an average of six hours, from shivering in the alpine cold to sweating through my shirt in a hot, airless car, from marveling at mountain panoramas to squinting at road signs. At first I welcomed the change, but as the miles stacked up and my legs went from rested to restless I began to wonder why I was doing this. What bizarre calculus had urged me to drive all those hours through the middle of nowhere just so I could walk a few hundred feet up a hill and stand atop a state best known for its flatness? Completionism? Stubbornness? A desire to "pick off the easy ones" (fueled mostly by laziness but also, more sinisterly, by self-doubt)?

No matter, I suppose. I did it, and it's done, and I don't ever have to do it again.

In all fairness, this leg of the trip wasn't entirely without value. I saw places and things I don't reckon I would have ever seen otherwise (i.e. Arkansas), got more practice driving on twisty mountain roads, added a few birds to my life list (though not the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker), and gained deep insights into the life of a long-haul trucker.

But let's return to the story at hand.

The first thing I noticed after crossing into Mississippi was how red the ground was: the dirt, the rocks, even the pavement:

Like that.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Low Point: Topsail Hill State Park, FL

I woke up the next morning to the sound of torrential rain pounding on the roof of my motel:

So much for visiting the beach that day. I ventured out to the front desk and extended my stay another night, then holed up in my room and spent the rest of the day working on blog posts. For you, my faithful readers, all for you.

The next day's weather proved much more amenable. After a morning of revision sleeping in, I ducked out just before check-out time and headed for the coast.

But to get to the beaches, I had to cross the bay... and to cross the bay, I had to pay the bridge-trolls their toll. Yes, yes, public works cost money, and infrastructure won't maintain itself, especially when it's built of steel beams suspended over a body of salt water, but... toll bridges.

This one wasn't as bad as others I've driven, only the price of a cheap lunch (rather than dinner-for-two). I forked over the cash and drove out over the expanse of beautiful blue water, over which glided flocks of seabirds in their chaotic courses as boats cut contrails through its glassy surface, and--who am I kidding, I kept my eyes on the road. A watery death appealed neither to me nor my Rock-type passengers.

But then, towards the end of the bridge, the water rose up to meet us...

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Highpoint #11: Britton Hill, FL (345')

The four-hour drive down to Florida was uneventful. Cheaha Mountain was fairly remote, so I passed through several small towns before I rejoined the interstate. Forestry seems to be a major industry in northern Alabama; for a while I followed a flatbed truck piled high with raw pine logs.

Around 3:30 in the afternoon (on Central time now), just after crossing the state line, I spotted a sign for "Florida's Highest Point." I'm surprised the turn was labeled at all, but if any state could be proud of a point less than 400 feet above sea level, it would be the Swamp Sunshine State. So I turned down the road and soon arrived at Lakewood Park, home to the (in)famous Britton Hill.

I hadn't expected much. A slight rise, a few meters' hike, perhaps even a bit of a view. But nope. Lakewood Park was nothing but a roadside park, flat as a pitcher's mound.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Highpoint #10: Cheaha Mountain, AL (2413')

I arrived that Sunday afternoon at Cheaha Mountain State Park in northeastern Alabama. Cheaha, the high point of the state, and its range are the southernmost extension of the Blue Ridge, though miles of lowlands separate it from its northern cousins. Thus despite its relatively slight stature, Cheaha stands tall over the relatively-flat Heart of Dixie.

Given Cheaha's prominence (in both the technical sense and in renown), it's no surprise that the park was still quite crowded when I got there. Cars filled the parking lot at the entrance, and families clustered along the sidewalks. I parked in an area designated for campsite registrees, then dodged through the traffic into the park office.

I'd like a campsite, I told the girl working the desk.

Primitive or semi-primitive? she asked, in an absolutely adorable Alabama accent. Semi-primitive's a bit more expensive, but it'll get you access to the bathhouses-

Semi-primitive it is, I said, for in that crowd of pleasant-smelling day-trippers I was all too aware of my mountain funk. My last shower had been three days and 24 miles of hiking ago, and it showed.

The sites are $18 a night, she continued.

More than my sources had claimed, but on par with most campgrounds I'd been to. All right, I said.

The girl processed some paperwork, then handed me a map, a tag for my car, and the bill. That'll be $23.36.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Side Trip: Last Chance Thrift Store of Lithia Springs, GA

Somewhere between Georgia and Alabama, I began to feel like a stranger.

I'm not sure what tripped my foreignness detector. It wasn't the roads I drove--interstates, US routes, and even state routes are labeled with remarkable consistency across this country--but it could have been my utter unfamiliarity with the lay of the land they covered. It wasn't the small towns, either--Virginia's got plenty of those, and they all look more or less the same--but perhaps their names: Dahlonega, Chattahoochee, Eastaboga, Wetumpka, showing off a much stronger Native influence than my home state's sedate, largely Anglicized names. It wasn't the churches, but maybe the churchiness that seeped into billboards and bumper stickers and background music; everywhere I looked, Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior was exhorting me to Choose Life and mind my Eternal Destination. Motorcycles and white cars proliferated. Spanish moss grew on the roadside pines. The accents ranged from adorable to near-unintelligible.

All this, mixed together in the summerlike warmth of deep-Southern May, left me with a prickling sense of culture shock. I was the funny-talking stranger down here: the wide-eyed tourist, the confused out-of-state driver...

...and, yes, the only white girl in the Georgia thrift store.

Highpoint #9: Brasstown Bald, GA (4786')

I pulled into the gravel lot at the Jack's Gap trailhead around 10 pm that night. All the way there I'd looked for a campground--well, as long as the sunlight had lasted--but, it being a Saturday night, the only place I'd come across was full. So here I was. My itinerary had me camping a mile downhill from here along the AT, but it also had me arriving before dark, so...

After a brief look outside,

I decided the most prudent course of action was to stay in my car. I made some space in the backseat, then cuddled up beneath a blanket to wait out the night.

Hmm, I thought as I drifted off to sleep. This ain't so comfortable. How can I make the night shorter? Why, by waking up early and making a sunrise hike of the Bald! I set my phone's alarm for 6, figuring that would be more than enough time to hike the mile and a half to the summit before the sun came up, then conked out.

Now, if you've ever been to Brasstown Bald, particularly if you've hiked it, you might have noticed a mistake in that last sentence. You're absolutely right.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Highpoint #8: Sassafras Mountain, SC (3553')

You know how Mt. Mitchell and Clingman's Dome looked like this:

and this, respectively?

On that very same day, South Carolina's high point (only a few dozen miles south, but a good 3,000 feet lower) looked like this:

I'm telling you, mountaineering is like time travel. (And if you ask my friend Wil, it wouldn't be a bad idea to combine the two.)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Highpoint #7: Clingman's Dome, TN (6643')

Though the winds in the valley rattled my tent's cover all night (the same way a curious bear would, I imagined), I slept much better than before. I woke to find the sun already risen--maybe, just maybe, I thought, I'm getting the hang of this "camping" thing. While the morn was still young, I broke camp, loaded up my car, and headed out.

Farewell to the Black Mountains!
I took a twisty two-lane road up and out of the valley, then hustled westward down I-40. There was no time to lose; on this beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, with quite unintended timing, I was headed for the Great Smoky Mountains Tourist Tra-... er, National Park.

Full disclosure: I hate the Smokies.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Highpoint #6: Mt. Mitchell, NC (6684')

I got a late start out from Burnsville on the 6th after spending most of the morning writing blog posts. What with that and a few embarrassing navigational errors—particularly so since I’d already been to this place!—I didn’t make it to my base camp at Black Mountain Campground until noon. That campground, located a few miles east-of and 3000 feet below North Carolina’s Black Mountains in the Pisgah National Forest, is the logical entry point for those seeking their summits.  Rather than pay for an improved campsite with shower access (since I’d had that at the hotel last night), I drove a little further up the road to one of the free backcountry sites and staked my claim. Had I arrived any later (in the afternoon or in the season), I’d have been hard-pressed to find a site, but the few folks who spend their May weekends in these hills aren’t too prompt about showing up. In retrospect, this ought to have warned me of something… but I’d discover that surprise soon enough.

Spring had arrived here, a hundred miles south and several hundred feet below my camp at Mt. Rogers, but only just. The cold breeze chilled me as I emerged from my car, but the exertion of setting up camp and assembling my gear soon warmed me up.

It almost looks like it's May down here.
By the time I’d packed up my high mountain gear (the same stuff I brought up Mt. Rogers), pitched my tent, and backtracked to the trailhead just inside the campsite, it was 12:30. This left me with a little over seven hours until sunset: exactly the time in which I’d hiked this trail last summer. If I could replicate that pace, I’d make it back before dark; if not, I’d need to break out the headlamp. I set my phone’s alarm for 4:30—summit or no, I’d turn around when it rang—and headed up.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Here's What's Up

Yes, I made it home safely from my Southeastern swing after bagging 17 high points in as many days.
Yes, I'm planning to post on each one of them.

No, I still haven't written up anything past Kentucky. I would claim I'm going for quality over timeliness, but we all know that's an excuse for procrastination. Of which I'm guilty as charged.

Hair is short now. Still an idiot.
I did, however, call Baxter State Park today to reserve my campsite there. Looks like I'll be climbing Katahdin on June 16th... assuming I'm caught up on posts by then.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Highpoint #5: Black Mountain, KY (4145')

Hoo boy, was it a mistake to skip dinner.

Not only is it amazing how fast you lose heat when you stop moving on a mountain, it’s even more amazing how fast the temperature plummets when the sun goes down. Though I’d stocked my tent for the night below Mt. Rogers with my sleeping bag (rated for comfort at 45 degrees F), my brand-new liner (touted to add an additional 25 degrees to the bag’s capability), a self-inflating ground pad (which had barely had time to inflate in my hasty setup), all the clothes I’d worn on the hike, and my own exhausted, meal-skipping, horrifically na├»ve body, it was no match for the chill and the winds and the wintry mix  that blasted the gap all night long. I might have drifted off to sleep once or twice… maybe… only to wake again mere minutes later, shivering like a seizure patient. I threw on every stitch of clothing in that tent, pulled the sleeping bag over my head, even covered my face with my down jacket to seal in the heat of my breath, but nothing worked. Either my body couldn’t produce enough heat to stay warm, my gear couldn’t hold in the heat, or both.

I roused myself at last when the light grew strong enough to make out the red of my sleeping-bag liner, and found the forest engulfed in fog:

Friday, May 13, 2016

Highpoint #4: Mt. Rogers, VA (5729')

I made it to Mt. Rogers without any further crises. As I drove up into the highlands, I noticed that though the leaves had been lush and green in the valley, they were barely budding here. That’s one thing I like about mountains: going a thousand feet up is like going several hundred miles north… or several weeks back in time.

I arrived at the gap between Mt. Rogers and its neighbor Whitetop Mountain by midafternoon. The missing-Lars debacle had set me back an hour, but I figured I still had time to hike 4.5 miles up the Appalachain Trail to the summit and back before dark. At worst, I’d get some practice hiking with a headlamp, which I’d need to do later in the trip to get up and down the Rocky (Rockiean? The ones in the west.) high points before their afternoon thunderstorms.

For the first time on this trip, I loaded up my day-hike pack (an Osprey with ~30L capacity, three major pockets, and more little strappy things than I’ll ever know what to do with). I didn’t know what the weather would be like up top, though it was pretty cold and windy in the gap, so I packed my Gore-Tex jacket from Mt. Washington along with a sweatshirt to wear while stopping for breaks (the most useful tip I learned from that mountaineering class. It’s amazing how fast you lose heat when you stop moving on a mountain). A liter of water, my notebook, my phone-camera, the aforementioned headlamp, and the Lars rounded out my gear. I zipped up my down jacket, shouldered the pack, and set off into the highlands.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Side trip: PANIC!

I headed out the next day from Staunton, where my grandmother and her partner had been kind enough to let me spend the night. The drive down I-81, familiar from my Blacksburg days, was uneventful. I exited at Chilhowie, VA (how’s that for a name?), and turned due south towards the high point of Virginia, Mt. Rogers.

I hadn’t driven far through the low, rolling country when a massive cluster of mountains rose up before me, filling the horizon with a wall of green. Patches of sunlight played over the foothills, bringing their color into even sharper contrast with the still-gray peaks behind them. The sight amazed me; I just had to get a picture of this. I pulled over (into the driveway of a confused-looking farmer) and grabbed for my phone and the Lars… only the Lars weren’t there.

Side Trip: Confederate Breastworks Trail, VA

On my way from Spruce Knob to Staunton, I made a brief stop at a place I'd been before, a little interpretive-history trail just west of Staunton on US-250. The Confederate Breastworks trail shows off the remains of Fort Edward Johnson, a mile-long ridgetop trench built by the Confederate army in anticipation of a Union advance from the west. Not much is left of the trench, as you can see:

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Highpoint #3: Spruce Knob, WV (4863')

People these days expect things to be instantaneous, or as nearly so as physically possible. And why not, when all the information of the Internet can be theirs for a few finger-taps, when it’s odd if an online purchase doesn’t show up at one’s door within a few days, when cars shoot in straight lines from city to city at 70 miles per hour. Speed and access is the norm; they want it all, and they want it now.

Well, mountains don’t quite allow for that, especially those as dense and jumbled as West Virginia’s. One can blow a hole through a single ridge, a la Sideling Hill, to put in an interstate, but it would take nukes to flatten West Virginia’s terrain into tractability. A road allowing consistent travel at 40 mph is a feat of engineering there. Similarly, each cell tower’s reach is limited to the valley it overlooks… well, most of it. If the valley’s scant population warrants a tower at all, which it probably doesn’t.

I mention all this to explain why, not long after leaving Seneca Rocks, I found myself stranded with no cell coverage and only a blurry, half-loaded Google Map to point me towards my destination.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Side trip: Seneca Rocks, WV

I rolled into Seneca Rocks, WV that evening with an hour of daylight to spare. At first I wasn't sure if I was in the right place, but then I looked up:

Yup, looks rocky to me.
The Rocks is one of the top outdoor rock climbing sites of the East. Climbers come from all over the country to scale the nearly four hundred routes up the quartzite crags, which range from beginner-level to some of the most technically challenging climbs out there. My plans were decidedly less ambitious, however: to spend the night beneath the rocks at the appropriately-named Seneca Shadows campground en route to the WV high point.

By the time I got there, though, the campground was closed, as was the Rocks’ visitor center.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Highpoint #2: Hoye-Crest, MD (3360')

I had been warned that the trailhead for Hoye-Crest, Maryland (a summit along Backbone Mountain, which extends into West Virginia) was hard to find, but I lucked into showing up right as another party was heading up the trail.

Not far from the trailhead

Friday, May 6, 2016

Highpoint #1: Mt. Davis, PA (3213')

I’m on the road now! Since I have limited access to both the Internet and writing time (I’m out here to see the mountains, not to pen the next Great American Doorstop), expect these posts to be more terse and photo-heavy. They’ll also be somewhat time-delayed (again, due to limited Internet access)—so keep in mind that everything described in these posts has already happened, most likely days ago. If you’re reading it, I survived it.

I set off from home on the 2nd under hazy gray skies, heading for the Pennsylvania high point by way of Maryland. Conditions stayed overcast until just after my car summited the first ridge (passing right beneath the Appalachian Trail), when they cleared up almost immediately. There’s a shining example of mountain weather for you.

I stopped for lunch along I-68 at the dramatic road-cut through Sideling Hill, MD.


Monday, May 2, 2016


"So," everybody's been asking, "how are you gonna do this trip? How long will it take? How many miles will you drive? How much will it cost?"

Well, I won't know the last three until it's done, but as for the first:
Highpoint Itinerary
Here's how.

I'll start off in my hometown, the good ol' Northern Virginia Urban Conglomerate (I've always found something vaguely grotesque in that word, "conglomerate." Have you?). From there I'll pop up into Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia in quick succession (following the light-green arrows), then work my way down the southern Appalachians through Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Georgia. After that I'll head south to Alabama, then all the way down to Florida (where I expect I'll linger for a few days on the beach), then back up to Mississippi, and then over the river to Louisiana.

That February Ascent of Mt. Washington, or Why I Am a Complete Idiot

So that's where I got the idea. Now you may be wondering, why the blog? Am I just another millenial publicity hog trying to squeeze "likes" out of a distracted world?

No! There is a reason I'm putting all this online, and the reason is that I'm an absolute idiot.
Yup. That one. Right there. Dummkopf.
Allow me to explain.

Last February, to prepare for the rigors of the western peaks, I took a three-day mountaineering class in New Hampshire.

The drive up there was an adventure in itself. I'd planned to split the twelve-to-thirteen hours promised by Google Maps over two days, but I was grounded by freezing rain on the first day, so I ended up driving all the way from Virginia to North Conway, NH in a single push. It didn't help that the freezing rain warmed and intensified into a deluge that followed me up I-84, or that I hit rush hour halfway through and had to take the long way around the urban centers of Connecticut and Massachusetts, or that the entirety of northern New England was covered in near-impenetrable fog (as I later discovered, I could have hit a moose on the highway). By the time I arrived, fifteen hours after setting out (Travel tip #1: Google Maps always underestimates drive time on country roads), I was ready to collapse into my hotel bed and sleep clear into the spring.

Which, of course, is exactly what I didn't do. My class started at 8 AM sharp the next morning, and I needed to get there early to buy a bunch of required cold-weather gear I couldn't find for sale in Virginia... because in three days we were going up Mt. Washington.