I was fortunate enough to get three consecutive days off work this week, the woods were calling my name. As I’ve mentioned, repeatedly, I am working part-time retail as of June, so I’m on a budget–I need to get to the woods–nearby and on the cheap!
Where to go? Where to go?
I’ll admit, when I think “backpacking” I don’t immediately think “Middle Tennessee.” Don’t get me wrong, I love this neck of the woods, and I think we have some mighty fine wild places to get lost in for a day or a few hours at a time…but I wanted more. More time. More options. More miles.
Naturally, I put out a call on Facebook. Where to go?
I received several suggestions, but the one that jumped out at me was Savage Gulf in South Cumberland State Park.
I talked to several coworkers who were familiar with the area, messaged a few hiking buddies about my options, and read several blogs and forums about the trails and the area.
Done. I had a place and a plan.
Tuesday morning, I loaded up the car with my dog and my teensy tinesy little pack–I somehow managed to get under 20 pounds with a liter of water and three days of food! I would be testing out some new gear on this trip, which I was both excited and nervous about. I am always excited to buy and/or test out new gear. It’s fun and exciting to search out just the right piece or come across a really great deal, but…at the same time, all that “old” and “heavy” stuff…well, it’s what I know. It’s what I am familiar with, and what all my routines are based off of. It’s comforting. Taking new gear into the woods is always a gamble–will it work properly? Will I like it? Does it fit right? If not, the consequences can range from mildly uncomfortable to downright disastrous.
The clouds threatened rain the entire drive down, and just before pulling off the interstate, it rained as hard as any rain I’ve ever experienced. It was miserable to drive in, but at least I wasn’t out hiking, yet. Thankfully, the downpour was brief, and there was no accompanying lightening or thunder. The heavy rained seemed to just be remnants of the previous day’s storm blowing itself out.
I arrived at the ranger station and quickly checked in, telling him my planned route, which would take me between 8-12 miles each of my three days (probably longer on day two in order to make the hike out on day 3 shorter. I had to be back in Nashville by 1 pm on Thursday, so I didn’t want to feel super rushed).
We hit the trail just before noon. I knew I was only going about 9 miles, so I wasn’t too worried about getting to camp late, but I didn’t expect to make as good time as I did. I set out from the Savage Falls Ranger Station along the North Rim Trail. It’s like I hit the trail and my body just…knew. I had to find my stride first, though. I adjusted the straps on my new pack and had to find a rhythm with my poles, but once I did…man, it felt good.
I wasn’t rushing, but I found myself pushing the limits of comfortable, pushing my legs and my heart just to the edge of sustainable. This trail was perfect for that. It was very rocky and rooty, but mostly flat, with gentle rises that could be charged up without change in pace or breath, and long, gradual descents that were soft on the knees and easy to trot down.
I took the time to stop at the overlooks and enjoy the views. In fact, the cloudy picture of the gulf is one of my favorite from the entire trip. It is beautiful. Moments later, those dark clouds burst, and Luna and I found ourselves hiking through a torrential rain.
The trail was full of the familiar twisted branches of rhododendron, trickling cascades (which I’ve been reassured will be bone dry in a matter of weeks…it’s a miracle that they are not already, apparently), and rocks–I’ll get to the rocks in a minute! It was blazed in white.
I found my stride, even through the rain and just let myself go. I can’t describe what happens when I hike like that, but it’s almost like meditation in motion. Sometimes I think, intentionally focusing my thoughts on one thing or in one direction, but often it’s kind of like mental white noise. I’m able to let the “thinking” side of my brain take a break and let the “moving” side take over for a while.
In the book Solo: On Her Own Adventure, Lucy Jane Bledsoe describes this feeling in her short story “Above Treeline,”
“I climbed and sweated and breathed hard, and allowed myself to just be body.”
I reached the cabin and campground early–before 4 pm, but I decided to stop anyway. Partly because that was what my itinerary and permit said, and partly because I could lay in the sun and read and write. I was still sitting in the same sunny spot (which was quickly becoming overrun with shadow as the sun sank beyond the edges of the cabin’s clearing) about an hour after stopping when three other hikers strolled in. It appeared to be a father and his two teenage daughters. He advised me not to sleep in the cabin, as the ranger had warned him about snakes.
I set up camp in the well marked, well maintained campsites near the cabin. I was just one space away from my new neighbors, but they were polite and well mannered, and I didn’t mind their presence. After eating the remaining bits of jerky that I’d brought with me (I foolishly assumed one small bag would last for three days. As soon as I started walking, I craved the salty, protein packed snack) and feeding Luna her dinner, I settled down to read and write and basically be lazy for the rest of the evening. I am really glad that I decided to take my new book Solo: On Her Own Adventure. I was having a hard time writing, bouncing from topic to topic, impatiently scratching at the paper of my notebook, as if I couldn’t get the words down fast enough. After a while I gave up and settled in to read a few more stories of solo female adventurers. I reminded myself that I am one of them. My story belongs among their ranks.
Just before calling it a night, I saw my neighbors (dad) pull out a bear line. Ahhh. Yes. One of those…ooops. Great. Now I was going to be that person who is sleeping with their food when everyone else is hanging. I hated that guy. I could almost feel dad’s righteous indignation as he set about his hanging business. Really?! She’s not hanging her food! It’s because of people like her that bears are attracted to campsites, anyway! It wasn’t until I saw the location and manner of his hang that it was my turn to feel a little righteously indignant. Really?! You might as well send a personalized invitation to the bear yourself! The bag was hung on a tree not 5 feet from their tent, on a branch no thicker than my wrist, and it sagged to a measly 7 or 8 feet of the ground. I was content with what Carrot Quinn (seriously, check out her brilliantly written and hilarious PCT blog) refers to as the “over my dead body” method of food storage.
Around 8, I pulled Luna in the tent and zipped up for the night. I continued to read until my eyes felt heavy, and I turned my headlamp off around 10. I hoped to swiftly fall to sleep, tucked into my bag and nuzzled up next to my dog…no such luck. I could not fall asleep. My brain wouldn’t turn off, and the day’s relatively short miles were not enough to soundly wear my body out and force sleep upon me.
With no sleep in sight, and a rumbling in my stomach, I fished a midnight snack out of my food bag (couldn’t have done that if it was hung in a tree!) and opened my book. There was something comforting about reading of other women’s tales of adventure, feats of bravery and endurance, while I was on my own little sojourn. The snack and reading helped, and around 12 or 12:30, I was finally able to sleep. I woke up again around 3, just glad that some actual time had passed since the last time I checked my watch. I slept on and off from 3 to 4, and needed no alarm when 5 am finally came, and I deemed it a totally suitable hour to get up. The birdsongs were the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. I don’t remember hearing morning birds quite that loud, clear, or beautiful anywhere on the trail…of course, I was rarely awake at 5 am last year!
I lazily packed up, ate breakfast, sipped coffee, and read a few more pages, before heading out of camp by 6:30. It was cool, and the oppressive humidity of the day before had vanished along with the remnants of the storm and clouds. What sky I could see through the tops of the tall, slender pines and willowy young oaks was a brilliant, cloudless blue. My plan was to hike down the Connector Trail to the Stone Door, a natural stairway of sorts from the top of the gorge down into the gorge itself, and then double back and hike to one of the campsites on the South Rim Trail. I knew that I would have plenty of time to do the longer mileage, given my early start and the easy, fast miles of the day before.
Well, no. About one tenth of a mile from the cabin, the trail turned into a rock scramble. I had immediate, horrible flashbacks to hiking in Pennsylvania, through ankle-breaking boulder fields exactly like the one before me. I groaned. I poked my way across the relatively short rock-maze, playing the torturous game of connect the dots that is hiking through rocks like this: step, step, locate blaze, reorient direction, step step, locate blaze, change direction, step step…
The greatest complication in all of this was Luna. She’s a great hiking dog, and she’s getting better at staying behind or beside me (as opposed to our last hiking trip, where she pulled me over 40 miles of trail), but I still don’t entirely trust her off-leash. She’s still just a little too skittish and headstrong. Also, I got the sense that, even though I was out mid-week, this is a fairly busy state park, and having her off-leash would be a big no-no.
Well, the dog tethered to me in this rock field–NOT FUN. She would either shoot ahead of me, much more stable in her footing, what with four feet and all, and begin pulling me, willy nilly, over the rocks with her, or she would hang back timidly, as I drug her along my path. It wasn’t fun. But it was a relatively short section, and I hoped we could just forge onward. That’s when I came to a section of the trail that disappeared. It simply dropped off into a pile of rocks. This was the descent into the gorge that I had seen on the topo maps. I had, foolishly, hoped for switchbacks.
I stood at the top of that drop and deliberated. Maybe this was like the rock field, intense, but short. In the end, I figured that if I attempted that section with my dog strapped to me, one of us would end up with a broken leg, and it’s just not worth it. So we headed back through the rock field, the way we came. At the junction to the cabin, there is another path that breaks off from the North Rim Trail and leads back to the ranger station, so I figured if I’m going back the way I came, why not take a different path?
Immediately, I set about scanning and analyzing this trail. It was much less traveled, that was apparent by the layers of leaf and plant debris that made the trail nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding forest. It was also littered with debris and blow-downs, so it was less maintained. I was able to quickly talk myself out of this trail, noting that it was probably perfectly safe, but just in case it wasn’t, I should go back. At least the rangers knew that at some point in my trip that I planned to hike on the North Rim Trail. If anything bad happened to me, I would eventually be found there. I wasn’t willing to go completely off the reservation on a trail that felt more…remote?…without anyone knowing where I was going. Safe call. Good choice.
That meant that Luna and I had turned around twice and had gained negative mileage for the day by 7:15.
The trek back was just as beautiful and meditative as it was the day before. I lounged in the sun on rocks overlooking the gorge that was shrouded in clouds when we passed through the day before. I sat in the shade to let Luna cool off, to read, and to just be in the woods. Other than the three I shared a campsite with, I had seen no one else in my two days in the park, and not another soul that day…and I was fine with that. I was enjoying the solitude. As I was enjoying one of these breaks, an older couple walked up on me and Luna. They hike here often they told me.
I would see them again as I approached the ranger station, and something in me was upset by that. I wanted to be alone. I wanted the last mile of my trip to end just as the first had begun–me alone with my dog.
In the last few miles of fast, flat hiking, I let my body take over and let my thoughts drift over everything I had contemplated in the last two days. Two days. Two days is all it takes to feel whole again, I marveled. No, not even two days. 24 hours. 24 hours, and I am renewed. Maybe life doesn’t have to be lived in such extremes as I’ve previously thought. The options are not Thru Hike v. World. If 24 hours is all I need, a new world has just opened up to me.
My trip was shorter and less scenic that planned, but I got so much out of it. I explored a new place (that I completely fell in love with!) and spent some much needed time for reflection, reading, and writing. I now have an excuse to return to Savage Gulf to hike the Connector Trail, the South Rim trail and explore Stone Door and the many waterfalls in the gorge.