Monday, March 14, 2016

One of My Favorite Places...and People!

This weekend was just great. Dara got some backpacking equipment for Christmas, and spring break is when she was determined to try it all out. Well, spring break is here! Amid a questionable (if not threatening) weather forecast, we decided to take a chance and go for it. I am soooo glad we did.

We went to one of our favorite hiking spots—where incidentally Dara hiked when she was just three years old—the Shining Rock Wilderness area in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

So we packed our gear and loaded up the Wagoneer (our "family adventure mobile") and left on Friday. We got to the Blue Ridge Parkway, only to find that it was closed! Uh-oh. Back down the mountain we drove until we found a trailhead that would lead us to Black Balsam Knob and Flower Gap from the eastern base of Little Sam Knob. That means we had to walk several miles further than we had planned! As Dara said, it was totally worth it. The day was unseasonably warm and the hike up the old rail bed and up Flat Laurel Creek was beautiful. It took us between Sam Knob and Little Sam Knob (yes, I too wonder who Sam was). We ate lunch and were drawn to the rocky peak of Sam Knob (elevation 6,045 feet), so we decided to climb it, lightening our load by hiding our packs at the base before ascending.

Wow. Beautiful 360-degree mountain view. Perhaps one of the best I've seen. While gawking at the vista, we noticed the wind increasing and the temperature dropping. We descended, found our packs, and headed toward Black Balsam Knob. The trail was lonely (read: awesome!). We felt as if we owned it all! That's the way the mountains are supposed to be. I think the threatening weather reports had scared away all the spring breakers, and the closed parkway made access even more difficult. All good with me!!

We filled our water bottles and crested Black Balsam Knob as the wind was getting more gusty. We continued on to the northern slope where there is a great little flat grassy spot I found 25 years ago in the midst of a laurel and blueberry thicket. It's a perfect campsite. You can see the sunset, there is a great little fire ring, and the bushes form a wind shelter. I told Dara, this is exactly the same spot where we camped when she was three.

Memory flashback...that trip was also on spring break. Darla and I backpacked with all three kids and hiked up to Black Balsam Knob. Drew was eight and Duncan had just turned seven. It was an inexpensive vacation, and we were poor and adventuresome. Darla gave in to my enthusiasm to do the backpacking trip (she's a hiker, but not a backpacker or a camper). So we packed our big six-man tent from Wal-mart and gave the kids a load. Our greatest concern: little Dara. She had a little pink Dora The Explorer backpack that matched her hand-me-down pink coat, and she wanted to share the load. We filled it with her blanket and some stuffed animals. Would she make it? Were we cruel to try?

That was when I first learned about her trademark toughness and positive spirit. She NEVER complained. She just sang while we walked and had the time of her life! After setting up camp, Darla was stressing. It was unexpectedly cold. Snow was on the ground in places. Duncan and Dara's "Disney princess" sleeping bags weren't up for this. So we doubled them up for Duncan and Dara ended up sleeping with Daddy. I must say, one of the top 5 favorite memories of my life was that night. Dara snuggled next to me SO happy. She told me how much fun she was having and that she loved me. She and I held hands all night. We were warm and slept like two rocks. Unfortunately, Mamma didn't. In addition to the cold and wind, there were coyotes yelping and howling all night long.

Ok, returning to 2016. Our first night was uneventful. We set up the tent (oops! I only had 2 tent stakes!) and ate Jambalaya. After sleeping well, we ate hot oatmeal for breakfast, packed up and hiked over Tennant Mountain, through Ivestor Gap, over what we call "Hippy Mountain" and by "Redneck Tarp City" (our affectionate nickname given to a spot where the rednecks drive their 4x4 trucks and camp in August for blueberry season) and on to Flower Gap. We did make one wrong move when we took a short cut (or so we thought) and ended up on the side of a mountain in some of the thickest brush I've ever been in. We decided to sit under  a grove of fir trees and eat lunch to get out the map and think about how we would get out of the brambles. We finally made it to Flower Gap, set up camp, and went to fill up all our water bottles in the spring (a half of a mile further) and gather firewood. Upon our return, we discovered a Raven that had grabbed our freeze-dried meal, had torn open the bag and helped itself to some of the contents. That didn't stop us from eating what was left.

The evening was crisp, breezy and beautiful, and the fire was welcome. It was a perfect evening if there ever was one. This is why we go to all the trouble to backpack.

I made 8 additional stakes out of wood and found another one, and secured the tent and rainfly well. A boy scout troop we passed earlier in the day had told us rain was expected that night.

Never doubt a scout.

As SOON as we got in the tent, it began to rain. And the rain never stopped. All night long the weather got worse and worse. Monsoon rains and wind battered the tent all night. At 7AM the dripping started as my seams hadn't been sealed in quite a while. Dara's little sleeping pad got soaked, and so did her bag. She said she was warm, so I said that we should try to sleep out the storm (it's miserable to pack while it's raining). But she was going stir crazy. So we got up and packed around 9AM and hoisted our significantly heavier packs to our backs and started the long trip back—in the rain. Finally, the rain slowed then stopped, and the the haze finally cleared revealing Big Sam Knob!

Decisions, decisions. Should [we] stay or should [we] go now? We both decided to in home. Virtually everything was soaked. Not cool (actually...quite cold!). Sleeping would now be a struggle. As we passed between the Sam Knobs, the visibility continued to improve, and by the time we saw the glorious Wagoneer, it was clearing pretty well with some occasional spots of sunshine.

The BIGGEST disappointment of the trip? The whole hike, Dara talked about eating at a restaurant called "Juke Box Junction" on our way home. It's a favorite of ours any time we hike in this area. You know how it goes: we were hungry, cold, and obsessing over what we were going to eat. I was dreaming of that big hamburger, crinkle fries, and a huge chocolate malt. Dara was talking about how their chocolate chip cookie dough milkshake was the best she'd ever had. We got there and were relieved to see cars in the parking lot (meaning, it's actually open on Sunday!). We excitedly went to the door and were met by a waitress who said, "I'm sorry, we're closed." What?!?! It was 42 minutes before the closing time that was on the door! I began to protest. Then it hit me...daylight savings time had begun early that very day. We were actually 18 minutes late. Doggonnit!

Dara was so heartbroken...and blamed me for wanting to sleep that couple of hours longer hoping for a break in the rain!!

Oh well, we ended up finding a pretty good burger joint in Waynesville. Have I said how much I love rednecks? Here's just another reason why: Dejected after missing Juke Box Junction, I told Dara, "If we can find one redneck or fat guy, he'll know where we can find a good burger joint." Within one mile, we spotted our redneck. I wish I could describe this guy, but I shall refrain. Upon hearing my accent, he dropped his guard (my legit country boy slang is handy at times) and told me we needed to turn around and go to Juke Box Junction! That's when he revealed his distinguished burger connoisseur credentials. I explained our predicament (without using words like "predicament") and he told us of another joint adding, "I'll tell ya, they gotta big 'ole burger 'bout 'dis big (making a circle with his hands bigger than the circumference of his head) and stacked way up high like 'is" (separating his hands vertically about a foot apart). Then he gave me complicated, detailed directions there. I asked him the name (I'm not sure he'd heard of Google maps). He said, "Ammons."

We went without hesitation and he was right. I had the "hamburger steak" bacon burger, which was about a half pound patty with all the trimmings. Dara got a burger, tater tots, and hot fudge cake that was to die for.

The sun was out. We walked around downtown Waynesville before heading home.

I love that girl. I'm so thankful to God for all my kids!

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