The joy of figuring out what went wrong

Earlier in the week I realized I haven’t had a good adventure in a good while. And by “good adventure,” I mean one in which I haven’t been lost in the woods. (“Lost,or “momentarily misplaced”?) In any event, it occurred to be I haven’t had to work my way out of a jam in longer than I care to remember. And to me, being “misplaced,” at least temporarily, is a key element of a true adventure because it gives me a chance to test my outdoor skills. And that reminded me of one of my favorite adventures, a group hike with the Carolina Mountain Club in 2011 that didn’t happen — for me, at least.

Today, I share a post from that trip originally published on January 22, 2011. I share it in part as a reminder that I have some unfinished business. Read to the end to find out.  

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Back in the old days – meaning before I got a GPS – I knew I’d been on a good hike when I couldn’t wait to get home and perform a topopsy. That would be a postmortem in which I would get out a topo map and try to figure out why, instead of going from Point A to Point B, I’d wound up at Q. Nothing quite like that post-hike thrill of figuring out that you should have gone left at the junction just past the beech cove rather than right, which, it turns out, dumps you in the backyard of a rustic type with a fondness for easily-angered dogs and cinderblocked pickups bearing bumper stickers of a laissez-faire theme.

I still get that thrill, only now I get it after plugging the Garmin Coloradointo the Mac, downloading my tracks and waypoints, then basking in the laptop glow of failure. I mean adventure.

Last weekend I headed up to the mountains. The initial plan was to backpack. When my hiking partner backed out and the winter weather turned out to be more wintery than someone with my backcountry skill set should attempt solo, I modified the plan: use the Davidson River campground, under about eight inches of snow, as basecamp for testing some winter gear, doing some cross-country skiing and a hike. (I wrote about the skiing end of the trip earlier in the week). I was indecisive about the hike until I noticed that the Carolina Mountain Club was doing a Sunday hike in the Shining Rock Wilderness.

I’ve hiked and backpacked a fair amount in Shining Rock, a 18,500-acre wild area that has some of the best views in the state. But I’d never done this 10-mile loop because I didn’t know it existed. In fact, it doesn’t exist, at least on any map I have of the area. Alas, by the time I tried to sign up, the hike was full (groups are limited to 10 people in a wilderness). “I’ll let you know if we have a cancellation,” hike leader Charlie Peterson emailed me.

Turns out they did, but I didn’t find out about it until the hike was about ready to start. I quickly packed and made the 45-minute drive from my Davidson River base camp to the trailhead. I said the hike didn’t exist on paper: That’s not entire correct. The main legs of the hike – the ridgeline out on Fork Mountain Trail, the return along the Little East Fork of the Pigeon River, do exist. It’s the climb from the Daniel Boone Scout Camp up to Fork Mountain Trail, and the descent down to Little East Fork that you won’t find on a map. And, I discovered, unless you’re a CMC hike leader, you’ll be very hard pressed to find the trailhead.

The trip map on the CMC Web site (OK, the loop does exist on one map) shows the trailhead just past the dam as you enter the Daniel Boone complex. The accompanying trail description simply says: “Climb to High Top tower site, follow the Fork Mtn. ridge, then descend to Little East Fork of Pigeon River.:-)” It’s the smiley that gets me.

The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t find a trail, the problem was I found too many trails: The wilderness borders Forest Service land criss-crossed with logging roads. Did the trail follow an old logging road? I started following a likely suspect, likely because it appeared maintained, likely because it seemed to follow the route on the CMC map, likely because there were bootprints in the foot-deep snow. At least for a mile or so. Then the footsteps abruptly retreated back down the mountain, all except a set of deer tracks that soldiered on. To heck with people, I thought. I’ll go with the deer. Onward and upward I continued.

Periodically, I stopped to try and reconnoiter my position with the CMC map. As the logging roads forked I chose the one that seemed the most likely to take me up to the ridgeline and the Fork Mountain Trail. But none of these roads seemed interested in reaching the ridge. I’d follow a spur line for 15 minutes, but at some point, usually tantalizingly close to the top, the trail would peter out. At one point I was within 200 vertical feet of the ridge, but with no easy way to get there. I should have been frustrated. And yet … .

And yet, I was hiking in a North Carolina forest with a foot of snow on the ground. The sky was cloudless much of the day, the temperature in the low 40s. Because of the snow, it was remarkably quiet. And I had zero chance of getting lost, since my lone set of bootprints followed me whereever I went. I hiked for about four hours, covered about nine miles, returned to the car exhausted and elated. And befuddled.

I was even moreso after getting home and downloading my GPS. I had assumed that I was hiking well north of where I should have been. In fact, I was a little south. But at some point, according to my GPS and the CMC map, I should have crossed paths with the actual trail. Multiple times, in fact. At my zenith, 200 feet from the ridge, the electronic topo gives the impression of a ridiculously easy scamper to the ridge. I close my eyes, picture the reality and sigh. I’m baffled, then elated. There’s only one way to solve this mystery, I realize.

A return trip.

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