My slogan as a guidebook writer: I get lost so you don’t have to.
Yet in the case of London Bald, there’s no guarantee that even my most meticulous directions, derived from wandering 20 miles in less than 24 hours with GPS and maps in hand, will spare you from a similar bushwhacking fate in the rugged Nantahala National Forest. For London Bald, like the 26-mile Appletree Camp trail network it’s a part of, is in a National Forest, and when you step foot on a National Forest trail, anything can happen.
I was scouting London Bald for my upcoming book “Backpacking North Carolina,” due out from UNC Press the first day of spring 2011. At 8:30 Monday evening, the sun having departed a good hour earlier, I stood in the middle of what was supposed to be the London Bald Trail. Even by the cash-strapped Forest Service’s standards, this trail was a mess. For the past half mile or so I’d plunged through thickets of downed rhododendrons, crawled under downed hickoires, scrambled over the trunks of mammoth hemlocks. I hadn’t seen a blaze since departing the Bartram Trail as the sun was paying its last respects to the final day of summer. I plunged/crawled/scrambled on, in search of anything that would pass for a campsite.
Then I came across a ReMax sign announcing “Mountain Property for Sale.” Shortly, I stumbled upon a dark log cabin and a gravel road. I got out my maps yet again, adjusted my headlamp downward and tried to figure out just where I was. My Trails Illustrated map showed roads, but none that could have been close. My “Appletree Group Camp Trails” map showed no roads even close. On the opposite side of the road I found a nice clearing – which I discovered the next morning is likely to soon be the site of a summer home for vacationing Atlantans.
A fit sleep and coffee did nothing to make sense of the maps. Must have gotten off course last night, I figured. I decided to backtrack, sgpendin the next two hours exploring a variety of false-lead footpaths and old roadbeds until I finally wound up at where London Bald split from the Bartram Trail. I decided to take it east (I’d come in from the north the evening before) down to the Laurel Creek Trail, another Forest Service trail that showed a similar respect for hikers as London Bald. Up it went, straight up, for 1.3 miles to the the Appletree Trail, which went even straighter up for another mile to London Bald, where the campsites I had been promised by one guidebook were well-hidden by dense undergrowth. Also well hidden: the London Bald Trail south, which is where I needed to go to find the water source said guidebook promised. That, too, proved non-existent (save for during a 100-year deluge perhaps). I was down to my last 10 ounces of water and – did I mention that during my ascent up Laurel Creek Trail I’d passed through a field of wildflowers and gotten swarm-stung on my calfs by bees? And have I mentioned previously that I’m allergic to bee stings? With no water and my legs swelling to Dumbo proportions, I had no choice but to bail.
That presented another intriguing challenge: Figuring out just where the London Bald Trail came in to the Bartram from the south, the route I thought I was on the night before. I followed the well-spaced pale (with time) blue blazes through more overgrowth. After three miles, the trail entered a gap – from which three trails sprouted. I took a long look: No blazes to be seen.
I’ve been here before, I realized. Like three times that morning as I searched for the London Bald Trail. I’d taken all three of the options, I remembered, but being low on water I couldn’t recall which one panned out. I got out my maps, got out the GPS, which showed a scribbling of routes from the morning, got out my compass and –
I took the least likely of the options and within 10 minutes was at the Bartram Trail intersection, within another hour and a half was at my car, within another hour was at a motel in Murphy, my swelling ankles resting mercifully on two Nalgene bottles filled with ice.
Again, I get lost so you don’t have to.