Day 5 – Friday
To Beauty Spot Gap (Mile 25)
I had been dreading Unaka Mountain all week. I knew how tough some of the other climbs had been, and this one would be bigger than each of them. But, frankly, it had been a cold night, and it would be nice to get up and get going. I wasn’t the first one up that morning, though—not because I was intentionally sleeping in, but because I was out cold. While deer in the vicinity had kept me awake for a while the during the night, at some point, I stopped hearing them and enjoyed my best sleep of the whole trip.
After coming back into the land of the living, and packing up, I joined Big Old Mustard and Nemo at the shelter for breakfast and a discussion about the plan for the day. The discussion wasn’t just going to be about the plan for the day, though, we’d also be talking about when and where our hike would come to an end.
As I mentioned in the last installment, I wanted to stay for as long as possible, even if we risked spending another night in the rain. I didn’t necessarily want to hike all the next day in the rain, but my vote was to hike another day and find somewhere to set up camp for the night and arrange to be picked up the next (Saturday) morning. Yes, we might get some rain overnight, but we wouldn’t be setting up in the rain, and we’d also be getting out of any rain pretty early the next morning. That was my vote, and I made my case for it.
The problem was that the next shelter was almost 13 miles away. And those 13 miles included a 1,300-foot climb up Unaka Mountain. I had also discovered by this point in the trip that I disliked going down the mountains as much (and maybe more) than going up them. Going down doesn’t work your cardiovascular system as much, but it is physically demanding, and I knew I was fortunate to have avoided a blister from some of those previous descents (something I would not avoid today). So, during breakfast, I made my case and used the Guthook app to point out a few good camping spots in the vicinity of nearby extraction spots for the next morning. Ultimately, in spite of what I thought were very persuasive arguments, we elected to hike 6 miles to Beauty Spot Gap where we could be picked up that day by someone from Uncle Johnny’s. I was cool with it. We knew two days ago we were making some decisions that would keep us from ever making it all the way to Spivey Gap as we had initially planned. The stop at the Greasy Creek Friendly along with the forecasted weather and our slightly slower than expected daily pace had all helped us reach that conclusion. So we finished our breakfast, checked our water, and set our noses toward Unaka Mountain.
Over breakfast, we agreed to hike over and down the little hill leading out of Cherry Gap and stop for a rest at the base of Unaka Mountain. It was only about 1.3 miles, but we knew a break would be wise before beginning the most significant climb of our hike. We set off together, but slowly put some space between one another. This time though, Nemo was at the rear and, for once, was the last person to arrive at our previously agreed upon rendezvous point. Don’t worry, he hadn’t broken a leg or gotten attacked by a bear or anything terrible like that (which is about what it would take for him to hike slower than us, and that’s still no guarantee), he just stopped to make a call to his wife.
One by one, we arrived at the base of the mountain and found a seat on a tree that had fallen next to the trail. I was happy to get there first as it meant more rest for me. Once again, it was a beautiful day. If there was rain coming that night, there was no sign of it now. The sky was blue with the perfect amount of clouds. I knew the trip was coming to an end, and the beautiful weather made it more difficult to swallow, but getting home to my family would be nice as well. It had been a good week, and there was still plenty of adventure ahead of us. The mountain was looming large—more in our minds than in our eyes. If we were going to make it to the top, we’d have to stand up and get going.
The plan was to get to the top and have lunch. There would be, some stops along the way, but the only predetermined meeting spot was the top. There were about 2.7 miles of trail and 1,300-feet of mountain ahead. It was the last real obstacle that stood between us and the comforts we had left behind. But, leaving the trail would be leaving a lot behind too, so there were mixed emotions waging war within me.
As usual, Nemo started off in the lead—no need for him to have to walk around someone in the first half mile. I followed him, and Big Old Mustard filed in behind me. With every step, the trail inserted a few inches of space between the three of us until eventually, we were all hiking alone.
The climb was tough but not as bad as what I had built up in my mind. Occasionally, I would check the Guthook app to see how much elevation I had gained, and each time I was surprised at how quickly I was putting some of those 1,300 feet behind me. We thought having Unaka Mountain toward the end of our hike would be advantageous, and that definitely seemed to be true. Maybe there is something to the whole “trail legs” thing. If they do exists, I don’t think we had hiked enough to get them, but today’s climb certainly seemed less exhausting than some of the others. Maybe it was just that after hiking for days, I had settled on a good pace for myself and knew the optimum times for taking a break.
I did take several breaks on the way up. Occasionally, I would stop on the trail and enjoy the scenery while having some water. Other times I would find a spot to sit and catch my breath for a few minutes. At one of my rest stops, Big Old Mustard caught up to me, and we took off our packs and sat down beside the trail. According to Guthook, we were almost exactly at the halfway point in terms of elevation, so we decided to take an extended break. Big Old Mustard laid his head back and took a short nap while I enjoyed what I knew would be some of my last private moments on the trail. I knew from previous days that Big Old Mustard and I would likely hike in close proximity for the remainder of the climb. And for the most part, we did.
Eventually, we came to a place where we found Nemo sitting and taking a break. We had not expected to see him until there was nothing left to climb, but I knew we still had a couple of hundred feet left to go. It turned out that the reason Nemo had stopped was that he thought he had reached the top of the mountain. Looking around, it did seem that way—so much so that it made me question the app. But, eventually we all agreed there was a bit more to climb, and so we got up and made the final push.
I was excited to get there and set off first. Not too far along, my nose alerted me to the fact that I was walking through one of those Christmas tree farms again—like we had passed through on the first day climbing up Roan Mountain. The smell was unbelievably strong and pleasant. I wish you could capture smells as easily as you can snap a picture.
Before I knew it, I was at the top of Unaka Mountain. I was the first of our group to make it and had a few minutes to myself. The scenery was unlike anything we had seen all week. It looked like a scene from The Hobbit. There was no underbrush, only trees and moss. If it were not for the white blazes, it would have been hard to locate the trail—all the ground looked the same.
As I was taking it all in, I heard my two hiking partners approaching from behind. They were immediately taken as well by the land of Tolkien we had just entered into. And, for the next few minutes, we all just strolled around on our own checking things out. We noticed a nice camping spot that would make a perfect place for lunch, so we each moseyed in that direction and found a few places to sit.
Since this would be our last meal on the trail, everything in my food bag was fair game. So, I reached for my favorite—Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy. It was my last one, but again, that didn’t matter at this point of the hike.
After lunch, Big Old Mustard called Uncle Johnny’s and arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at Beauty Spot Gap like we planned that morning. Because of the approaching weather, everyone was trying to get off the trail, and they were pretty busy. They were able to fit us in, though, and we agreed on a pickup time that we could easily make.
After the call, we packed up our cooking gear, loitered around to burn some time, and slowly made our way back to the trail. It was hard to leave this spot. There was something about it that begged you to stay. I would have loved to have set up camp there for the night, but it was time to get going, and so we began the descent.
The trail down the mountain was pretty rocky. So rocky that it gave me blister as a souvenir. But, we were in good spirits the whole way down and pretty much hiked it together, stopping to comment on things along the way. We had plenty of time and were in no rush to get done.
Eventually, we made it to the road at Beauty Spot Gap and searched for the place where we had agreed to meet the driver from Johnny’s. We felt like it was a little way up the road, which also meant climbing what turned out to be a pretty long and pretty steep hill. Mentally we were done with hiking, and we complained the whole way. The driver from Johnny’s was right on time and helped us get our gear loaded into the back of his FJ Cruiser. The ride back to Johnny’s was a nice conclusion to the week. The driver had a lot of experience in the area and plenty of good stories to share.
The only thing that remained was to get something for my kids before heading home. I also wanted to pick up something for my wife as a “Thank You“ for taking care of things while I was gone. I knew there was an Outfitters at Uncle Johnny’s and expected to be able to find everything I needed.
Ultimately, I not only got things for each of them but also walked out with a gift for myself. I knew I had to get a smaller and lighter pack before doing this again. That was at the top of my gear modification list, and I mentioned it to one of the guys at the Outfitter. He told me they had significantly marked down their Granite Gear Crown V.C. 60 packs. I made the mistake of trying one on, and after a brief conversation with Nemo about the pack and the price, I found myself at the checkout counter paying for one along with the things I had gotten for my family.
We are currently making plans for another hike. Like last year, our plans for the spring are going to be postponed until fall. But, those mountains are calling my name, and I can’t keep myself from calling theirs too. I did enjoy this hiking thing after all.