Rediscover forgotten trails

Wednesday morning I was 10 minutes down the trail, passing through a clearing about to reenter the woods when I was struck by an odd mix of discovery and deja vu. The trail through this rolling hardwood forest and this clearing was both familiar and foreign. I’d hiked here before, plenty of times. At one point, I probably hiked here two or three times a month. And I had some vivid memories, including one visit in a light snow. But there was one thing I couldn’t remember.

When was the last time I hiked it?

* * *

There are lots of reasons why we part ways with a trail, even a trail we love. Proximity, for one.

Trails distant, in the mountains, that require a half day (or more) drive can easily fall off our radar. Or get reassigned on our priority list.

One of my more memorable backpack trips was five days on the North Carolina portion of the Bartram Trail, from just west of Franklin to Cheoah Bald. Great views (Cheoah and Wayah Bald), passage through mountain meadows (coming off Wayah), inadvertently treeing a bobcat near London Bald, and perhaps the wildest climb I’ve done, hacking my way up steep Ledbetter Creek from the Nantahala River into an ethereal basin of meadow and hardwoods just below Cheoah. Epic. And yet it’s been more than a decade. 

The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee in the Smokies, a 10-mile, 4,000-vertical foot climb to Clingman’s Dome from a basecamp along Noland Creek. I remember them like they were yesterday, and yet it’s been more than 10 years for them as well.

Distance and the incredible variety of new places to explore in the mountains, that’s a reasonable excuse for such lapses. Had I repeated these trips I might not have discovered new portions of the Appalachian Trail, or delved deeper into Linville Gorge or Wilson Creek. So many options. As Monk once said of his mad detective skills, it’s a blessing — and a curse.

It’s the neglected trails closer to home that are more puzzling. A trail that was our go-to for years, suddenly abandoned.

Maybe we overdid it, like a gallon bag of GORP, and needed a break. Even repeated hikes on the best trails can get us into a rut. There’s a trail in my neighborhood that I hiked daily from late March until early June that I likely won’t hike again for a spell. A nice trail, but I was coronavirus-confined to hikes out my front door; this was my best option, and after a while, my rambles felt like less like an escape, more a part of the shelter-in-place sentence.

Sometimes a trail goes off the radar because it becomes physically altered. After Hurricane Fran went on its local tree-toppling spree in September of 1996, I spent a lot of time hiking in the unaffected Triad. Even as local parks and forests slowly came back on line, there were local trails I didn’t hike again for years. 

When the 5-mile stretch of Mountains-to-Sea Trail from West Point on the Eno Park in Durham to Pennys Bend opened several years ago, I led a handful of hikes. The botanic treasures of Pennys Bend, a couple of parks, peeping into people’s backyards: what more could you ask of an urban trail? But then a public works project shut it down for several months, and I haven’t been back since. 

And sometimes there’s a more … psychotic reason we haven’t returned, a reason that has nothing to do with the trail itself. Such, I came to realize, was the case with Wednesday’s hike at the Cole Mill Road Access to Eno River State Park.

Several years back, I lead a number of beginner hikes on the Cole Mill and Bobbit Hole trails on the upstream side of the access. At a little under 3 miles, it was just the right length for beginners. I also conducted a session of our GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking class here: a mile hike in full pack to the primitive camping area to set up, then break camp, followed by a two-mile hike out. Perfect for getting people used to hiking with weight, with setting up camp. Just one problem.

In the class info I emailed beforehand, I gave specific instructions to our meeting place — the Cole Mill Access. When the hikers and backpackers got up that morning, they would ignore my instructions and simply plug “Eno River State Park” into their hand-held computer-machine telecommunications device and it would give them directions to park headquarters — in the Fews Ford Access. Every time, at least one person went to the wrong location. For one backpacking session, I waited alone for five minutes, 10 minutes. Then my phone rang. 

“We’re waiting for you.”

“You’re waiting in the wrong spot,” I replied. I’d had enough; we would meet elsewhere. So we did.

 * * *

Wednesday morning, though, I was reminded why I need to fold the 2.7-mile Bobbit Hole/Cole Mill loop back into the rotation. Its mellow approach to the Eno, the river lake that is Bobbit Hole (pictured above), the camping, the rapids on the Eno: that’s a lot to experience in less then three miles, especially when I need a quick fix close to home. I’ll be back, I told myself, and soon.

Who knows, I might even lead another hike there some day.

Weekend homework

Your hiking homework for the weekend ahead? Revisit a trail you haven’t hiked in a while, one that was your go-to for a spell but, for whatever reason, you haven’t hiked in a while. Then share a photo or two of your hike with us on our GetGoingNC Facebook page. We’ll discuss your homecoming adventures on Monday’s Facebook Live Morning Walk with Joe.

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