Three Times When Hiking in the Blue Ridge Didn't Go As Planned

The beast that shattered the silence of an otherwise perfectly enjoyable sunset.
The beast that shattered the silence of an otherwise perfectly enjoyable sunset. melina coogan
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For the past year or so I have spent my time exploring the Blue Ridge, scouting the trails, hunting for swimming holes, and teetering at the edge of rocks to find the most impressive sunrise vistas. Then I’d return home and write up my findings so that other people could go out and enjoy them as well. A dream job, no doubt, but nary a dream is accomplished without a little roughing up. Here are three assignments that did not go as smoothly as the photos may have suggested.

Sam’s Knob: The Over-Stimulated Chihuahua

Toasting to an evening of meteors, ten minutes before the clouds rolled in.
Toasting to an evening of meteors, ten minutes before the clouds rolled in. Melina Coogan

My needing photos of  Sam’s Bald happened to coincide with the Perseid Meteor Shower. I brought along two friends, Megan and Kelli, thinking how nice it would be to have a girls’ getaway of hiking in the Blue Ridge and camping beneath the stars. Kelli is more of a city gal. She claims to love camping but she is lying. At this point in the story, however, I was unaware of that.

The evening began as perfectly as we’d imagined. Deep tones of sunset. Stars beginning to emerge. We settled in and waited for the magic to begin. But the magic never began. Once the sun went down, the clouds moved in. They sat low and heavy over our tents, and our expectant little faces soon fell. The clouds blocked all trace of light from the heavens.

Around that time, Kelli started to sneeze and couldn’t stop. As it turns out, Kelli is allergic to nature. When my dog hears someone sneeze, she goes nuts barking. She always has. This set off Kelli’s Chihuahua, Arrow, who earlier in the night had consumed an unsanctioned mouthful of coffee grounds and was already overstimulated. Megan's two dogs soon followed suit.

Kelli and Arrow, just before sunset, acting suspiciously copacetic.
Kelli and Arrow, just before sunset, acting suspiciously copacetic. Melina Coogan

As the minutes crept by, the fog did not stir. The dogs did not quiet. Morale reached an all time low and we finally retreated, each to our individual tents. The meteor shower was predicted to reach its peak at 3 a.m., so Megan set her alarm. She needn’t have, as nobody got any sleep. Neither Kelli nor the dogs could quiet down. It was a long night, 3 a.m. came and went, and if a single star shot through the skies, its ancient light did not fall upon our eyeballs.

At 6 a.m., Kelli appeared beneath the vestibule of my tent and exclaimed, “Get me out of here. I can't take this any longer.

At least the sunset photos turned out nicely. Kelli never did go camping again.

The Hawksbill Mountain: The Fog-Out

Was it Carl Sandburg who wrote: “Fog comes in on cat's feet....and then moves on.” This fog did not move on.
Was it Carl Sandburg who wrote: “Fog comes in on cat's feet....and then moves on.” This fog did not move on. Garden State Hiker

It was 3:30 a.m. and my husband, David, and I were driving on curving country roads through a rainstorm in January. “It’s just a sprinkle,” I said with lukewarm conviction. “It’s going to pass.” We were heading to the Linville Gorge , toward a place called Hawksbill Mountain, which is supposed to be one of the best spots in the Southeast to catch a sunrise. (I love this phrase “catch a sunrise,” as if it were happenstance and did not require an ungodly wake-up time.)

The truth was, while I needed the photographs to accompany an article, I also wanted to do something uplifting with David. I’d recently been diagnosed with a complicated neurological disease, and we’d both become rather mopey. What we needed was the sting of cold mountain air and the freshly optimistic perspective often gleaned from “catching” a sunrise.

What we did not need was to become lost on the backroads of Linville for over an hour, miss sunrise entirely, and reach the summit only to find that the rain had indeed passed, but it had been tailed by a thick curtain of impermeable fog.

Stop me if you know where this is going.

I’ve since confirmed that Hawksbill is indeed one of the most splendid lookouts this side of the Mississippi from which to view that venerable moment of daybreak. That morning, however, the view from the summit was no more inspiring than staring at a set of heavy gray drapes, the likes of which you would find inside a cheap chain motel. Being outside is almost always preferable to being inside, but on that moment we failed to find the inspiration we needed inside the clouds.

You can’t win them all, can you?

Black Balsam Knob: Six Men with Axes

Do not let this man's predilection for tank tops give you the wrong impression: Black Balsam Knob gets very cold.
Do not let this man's predilection for tank tops give you the wrong impression: Black Balsam Knob gets very cold. Melina Coogan

Late November. I was considering an article about short hikes with spectacular views , so I suggested to David that we camp out at Black Balsam Knob . “Let’s not do that,” he replied. “You’re going to get too cold.”

I have a history of impulsiveness, of “creative spontaneity” that others may discern as sheer stupidity. Or more to the point, I tend to completely disregard the weather. It began when I was 15 and I wandered into the White Mountains of New Hampshire in December, got horrifically lost overnight in -4o degree weather and, I don’t mean to brag here, but the Coast Guard was called in.

Nothing that extreme has ever happened again, but I still posses the twin attributes of over-enthusiastic _gung-ho-_manship and ill-preparedness. Furthermore, I treat my lesioned brain and screwy central nervous system with Chinese medicine, and my practitioner sternly advised me against getting too cold. (Chinese medicine is all about the temps.)

So David was only looking out for me when he gently suggested we enjoy the sunset on the summit, but then head back home to our warm bed. I insisted. He caved. Nature put on a brilliant sunset that night and I got all the shots I needed. But once the sun dropped, and I’d politely asked to borrow his extra shell, second sleeping bag and bivy sac (we didn’t own a tent at the time) I did have to concede that I was pretty cold. We packed up and to a lower elevation, inside the forest.

We enjoyed zero cozy moments before I conceded and we had to pack up and leave.
We enjoyed zero cozy moments before I conceded and we had to pack up and leave. Melina Coogan

It was there, shivering around a campfire in the darkness, that we were approached by a band of young men, all dressed in camouflage and holding axes. I saw them emerge from out of the trees and I knew that the end was near, and that it would be a grisly one. David, on the other hand, didn't seem at all concerned.

“Hey what's up man,” he said, in the way that men talk to other men.

“Nothing much,” answered one of them. I could not make out their faces. “You guys seen any trees nearby?”

It was an odd question to receive in the middle of the forest. The men were adamant, however, as well as fairly inebriated. We eventually came to understand that they were in search of a particular tree, a fallen one they had spotted earlier and were now seeking out for firewood. We pointed to a number of fallen trees nearby, but apparently none of those measured up, and finally they staggered on.

"Woah. I thought we were dead," I hissed to David. He looked back at me, confused.

"They were just drunk," he said.

“Yes but, they were all holding axes!”

“They were?” David asked. He hadn’t picked up on that detail. My husband, as it turns out, has terrible eyesight.

One week later, we purchased a sturdy and dependable three-season tent. I bought a small can of mace that attaches, cleverly, to a keychain.

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