7 states, 6 days, 3 summits, and a 2000-mile adventure

My solo adventures began in Glacier National Park as sort of a trial by fire. As in, I had never started a fire. I had never even set up a tent. Where do these pole thingy’s go? Bear Mace? That’s a thing?!?

I have since been taking off for the mountains proximately upon depositing the appropriate amount of gas money into my bank account. A fairly steady cycle of work, drive, climb, work, pay that pesky electric bill, drive, climb…and so on. Not much time to reflect and truly absorb the experience that is being an aspiring vagabond. Dinner upon returning from my last climb was a can of cold garbanzo beans from the back of my pantry. I didn’t shower for several days on the road, camped next to a homeless person at a truck stop in Kentucky, and used a privy in Missouri that emitted a foul odor I could only describe as a combination of over-cooked schnitzel and shame. Perhaps I have graduated to accomplished vagabond.

Seven states, six days, three summits, and a 2000-mile adventure. Totally worth it.

The Great Smokies
Tackling my third U.S. highpoint wasn’t much of a challenge, considering it rests at the 6,643-foot summit of an observation tower that can be reached by anyone willing to walk half a mile from the parking lot. To be fair, it is a steep incline with a 13 percent climb gradient. In other words, if you are not particularly fit, you will most likely stop several times at the conveniently placed benches to rest with the throngs of other tourists gasping for breath remarking, “wow, this sure is steep.” Whilst watching the dude running up the hill backwards (because he runs here every week) in awe…but quietly thinking douchebag.

Okay, maybe that was just me.

Clingman’s Dome, the Tennessee highpoint, is located inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With more than ten million visitors annually, it is the most visited national park in the country (go ahead and Google it. I did). By all appearances, about 9 million of them decided to come this very week. Tour buses, senior citizens, Appalachian trail hikers, mini-van families from Nebraska, and some particularly awful Amish children that amused themselves on the tower by pouring water on the innocent bystanders below.

After descending the tower that marks the concrete summit, I decided to escape the tourist circus and take a leisurely hike along the Appalachian Trail. Following a sign, I connect with the Forney Ridge Trail leading to a high elevation grassy meadow known as Andrews Bald. Flame azalea, rhododendron blooms, and panoramic vistas, make this a beautiful place to stop and picnic. If not for the ticks. Chatting away with a couple of veteran hikers, our conversation was interspersed with exclamations of “TICK!” as if it was a verb. “Did you know that this area was the site of…TICK…a major military plane crash. In 1946, a B-29 Superfortress smashed into…TICK…Clingman’s Dome during a night navigational flight. All twelve men…TICK…aboard the plane were killed.” Ticks. Nasty little hitchhikers.

Camping in Tennessee proved to be a challenge. I usually roll in to camp at night, pitching my tent under cloak of darkness. Breaking camp at dawn, quietly absconding without a trace. Camping: ninja-style. The first prospect, Elkmont, was completely full. I could have pitched backcountry, but without a park map, compass, lighting, or really any general idea of my whereabouts, I advised myself against becoming bear food. Thirty minutes down the road I find Cades Cove and settle in for a few hours of rest because I will be on the road again as the sun rises.

Tent camping at Cades Cove

Tent camping at Cades Cove

Virginia is for LOVERS
I have always kept a generous supply of earplugs on my bedside table. For as long as I can remember these tiny foam devices have bridged the gap between intermittent insomnia and a peaceful night of rest. This, and the occasional Xanax. I don’t even live in a large city. Just a cat and the reverberation of a ceiling fan to break the silence of the dark. So why am I yammering on about earplugs? it occurred to me that I NEVER need these things when sleeping outdoors. My circadian rhythm resets naturally to the rise and fall of the sun. Nature becomes my insomnia medication. In fact, a recent study by the University of Colorado has found that by taking a seven-day respite outdoors, we can set our body and mind back in sync. So, listen to the Doc and take seven… but don’t call me in the morning (I’m on the trail)

Early arrival to Grayson Highlands State Park allowed some time to review the trail map and make a proper summit game plan. But I did not. Instead, I sat myself on a bench at Massie Gap and took pictures (of the bench) completely forgetting my map in the car. I crossed the field with a cold, hazy fog lifting and set out on the 9-mile trek to bag the highest peak in Virginia.

The trails were well blazed and fairly easy to follow. I had heard rumors of wild ponies in the highlands and was certainly not disappointed. The area is home to over 150 feral ponies as part of a grazing program to conserve the alpine vistas and grassy balds. So, don’t feed the ponies. And as appealing as it may be, don’t attempt to ride one. At the very least, you will be banned from the park. At worst, you could suffer the wrath of a wild animal furiously chasing you back to the trail. How do I know this? I got a little too close to the grazing long horn cattle. Taking pictures and enjoying the highland views, all was well until two calves emerged from behind a rock. Mama cow calmly rose from the grass, gave me a determined stare, then charged. I have never run so fast in my life. A cautionary tale. Wildlife is WILD.

Wild ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park

Wild ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park

A few miles later I reach the summit of Mount Rogers. Only I didn’t know it. Another highpointer recognized the confused look on my face and graciously pointed out the USGS marker on a nearby boulder. Without his direction, I would have likely pressed on for miles on an unmarked trail leading to the mythical land of Narnia.

Heading back, I completely miss the spur that returns me to Massie Gap. Instead, I traveled along what I later learn to be a horse trail. I always recommend taking a topographical map. Recall, I left mine in the car. Low on water, I made the educated decision to backtrack and thankfully found the correct spur back to the trailhead. The park ranger estimates I hiked a total of 14 miles. Immediately upon returning home, I scheduled a land navigation class. For which I was late. Because I left my campsite on the wrong side of the mountain.

State of Independence
The plan was to continue eastward and summit Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina. One thing I have learned on the road: nothing ever goes to plan. From the road, I received a message from an old friend asking me to stop and visit. In Pennsylvania. Of course I only had two questions. First, “where is the nicest place to get a hot meal” and second, “is there a mountain to climb nearby?” He responded, “Mcdonalds and Mount Davis.” Sounded legit to me. Five hours later, I roll into Pennsylvania Amish country and set up camp. Completely exhausted.

Sunset from the road

Sunset from the road

Rising early, I visited briefly with my friend then made my way to the trailhead parking lot of Mount Davis. The 3,213-foot summit can be reached by car, or a number of hiking trails. I opted for the former. A short walk from the parking lot leads to a metal observation tower that lends expansive views of the surrounding mountains.

Mount Davis observation tower

Mount Davis observation tower

After selecting a rock from the summit for my five-year-old (she really likes rocks), I began the 1000-mile drive back home.

Next adventure: Colorado.

Amber Jensen