Hiking Journal: Monster Marathon, Take 1

Distance: 26.2 Miles
Location: Jones Gap State Park, South Carolina
Time: Summer 2011
Hikers: Jesse Peterson, Rebecca Lopdrup, Emily Shibut

It was a beautiful day in Marrietta, South Carolina. The waterfalls were gushing, the bugs were biting, and Rebecca, Ami and I were gearing up for our first day of hiking at Tuckaway. Having examined the map of trails, we picked out a beautiful hike of approximately 10 miles that we were excited to tackle. We dutifully packed our backpacks and fanny packs with a bag of stale pretzels, a small bag of craisins, and a jar of peanut butter, filled our water bottles, and drove off for a pleasant hike. It was 8:00 AM when we got out of the car and started hiking, and we had nothing but rivers and mountains in front of us. We were ready for anything.

We began on Trail 1, a beautiful 6-mile warm up that takes you up a gentle incline and follows the river. “What a magnificent hike!” we proclaimed as we strode over tree roots and paused to take pictures of the colorful mushrooms growing alongside the trail. We felt great as we crested “the winds” as they are called, and crossed the pond to our next destination: trail 2, a short, 0.7 mile branch that would take us up to the parking lot.

It’s funny how something “short” can seem so long when you are walking STRAIGHT UP THE SIDE OF A MOUNTAIN. Huffing, puffing, and singing Disney songs, we trudged our way up the dirt incline, feeling like for every two steps we took forward we slid back by one. Finally, we reached the parking lot and decided to take our first break. Approximately 7 miles in, we killed the bag of pretzels: 1 snack down, very little left to go. It was okay, though, because we were only doing about 3 more miles!

However, peeking over the trail map and feeling fairly wonderful, we noticed an alternate route we could take. This one would set us on the long, white trail—the longest in the park—for 10 miles, and promised stunning views of the valley below. We tallied up all the trails we would need to get there and to get back, and came to a total of 26 miles. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably something along the lines of “are you stupid?!” or maybe “You have a bag of craisins, a jar of peanut butter, and only one bottle of water each! You’re going to die!” Well, good news: you, my friend, are a rational person. We, on the other hand, were young and reckless. 26 miles it was. We zipped away our snacks, neatly folded the map, and headed onto the “Raven Cliff Falls” trail.

Holy crap, guys. Raven Cliff Falls are GORGEOUS. We could not stop gushing about how wonderful of a 3rd date this hike would be as we traversed the hills and valleys along the short, 1.5 mile trail the wound around the side of the mountain. Uneventful, but beautiful nonetheless!

Feeling strong and confident, we came upon the Dismal Gorge trail, which bore a strict warning sign – “Will take four hours. Please do not attempt if you don’t have at least two bottles of water, plenty of food, a first aid kit, serious hiking boots, a guard wolf, a stretcher, military clearance…” you get the idea. Basically, this trail projected itself as intense. While some would have taken this as a warning, we saw it as a challenge. Four hours? Yeah right! We made our way to the bottom of Dismal Gorge (literally straight down all of the climbing work we had just done) in 30 minutes, and went all the way back up within 1 hour and 5 minutes. Try one and a half hours, warning sign. Pshhh. We  could do ANYTHING.

It was at the top of the next hill that we encountered the sign for the 10-mile portion of trail. Each of us high-fived the trailhead, and we continued along, passing the highway that was the last sign of civilization that we would see for a while. Oh wait, actually, I take that back – we did see one other group of people, a cute little Asian family, RIGHT as we were trying to go to the bathroom. I kid you not, as soon as we decide to take our only bathroom break, the only other people in the entire park appear from nowhere. We have wonderful luck.

The first portion of the 10 was the kind of hiking that I like to call “glorified walking.” Long, flat, and wide, the trail seemed to go on forever, and I couldn’t help but think of how awesome it would be to mountain bike. All of a sudden, Rebecca let out a scream.

“Are you okay?!” Ami and I screamed in unison, expecting the worst (Ami is afraid of snakes, I have a huge fear of bees, and Rebecca is terrified of spiders—basically, we are the best hikers ever).

“Yeah, I’m fine, but—something stung me!” Rebecca proclaimed, gingerly moving her leg. “I don’t think it was a bug…”

Just then, there was another yelp, but this time it was Ami. “Ouch! This plant hurts!”

Yes. We were in a field of stinging nettles, with no clear patches or end in sight. It was like a minefield of horrible, terrible burns that would no doubt inhibit our endeavor to complete this marathon. Gingerly we picked our way through, trying to step on everything that we could so that it couldn’t get us. The next mile felt like a million, but eventually we reached a clearing and jumped around in joy. How I never was stung, I will never know. We reached a log shortly after, and sat down to have our “lunch” (at about 3 in the afternoon). Bye-bye, craisins. All that was left was the peanut butter – and nothing to eat it with.

The trail only got harder, as we hit rocks and steep uphills. We were tired, bruised, bleeding, but we needed to push on. This was no longer a pride thing—literally, if we didn’t keep going, we would have no way to get home. Our water bottles were running lower and lower with each hill, but eventually the trees began to thin out. We had reached the top! We sat again to take a break, and couldn’t believe our eyes. All of the Smoky Mountains seemed to stretch out below us, and we could see the bible camp below, as small as an ant. It was a magnificent view, but we knew we couldn’t sit too long – it would be getting dark soon, and we still had a long way to go. We pushed on. Ami and I, worried about running out of water, stopped at a waterfall to fill up, but Rebecca refused. “It’s probably full of parasites” she insisted as we chugged the gloriously cold water and filled up again. Parasites or not, we were beyond thirsty. After the bald spot came some downhills, but before we knew it we were climbing again. Steep, long stretches that seemed to go on forever and were accompanied by shouts of “how on earth are we STILL going up?!” We pushed on.

As we climbed mountain after mountain, we began to worry that we were losing the trail. The white blazes that used to line every tree weren’t showing up as often, and sometimes they would be replaced with orange circles or pegs in the shape of South Carolina. We pulled out the map or reference, but the many twists and turns were extremely difficult to discern. Eventually, we came to a downhill covered in leaves, and we were ecstatic. Rebecca and I began to run down the hill, cheering as loud as we could in our dehydrated and extremely hungry state. It took us a minute to halt our momentum when Ami screamed at us to stop.

“I don’t think you’re on the trail!” she exclaimed. “I don’t see any blazes, and I feel like it’s going back the way we came.” The thing about Ami is that she has an amazingly accurate internal gyroscope that makes her an annoying best friend when I’m driving and she directs me around, but a wonderful hiking partner when we think we’re going to die. Sure enough, as we looked around, there wasn’t a blaze in sight since the point where we had started our descent. Grudgingly, we turned around and climbed yet another hill to put us back just where we started, before turning left up the actual trail. Yes, up. Somehow, there was still higher ground that we needed to reach.

The water that had followed us like a guide throughout our entire hike began to trickle out as we reached a certain elevation. Ami and I sipped our stream water contently as Rebecca gazed on in envy. Finally, she voiced the thought that had been on her mind for a while.

“Hey, Jesse? Would it be okay f I had a sip of your water?”

“Yeah! Of course!” I replied, and offered up my water bottle.

Rebecca took a sip, and then another, and then another. I don’t think parasites were on her mind. After she stopped drinking, she smiled. “It tastes like fruit juice!” she said happily. Ami and I looked at each other with looks of mild terror, realizing that if we didn’t get out of the woods soon, it would get dark, we may get eaten by bears, and we may go completely mad. We continued along, finally having reached the ridgeline of the mountain and now walking on flat, narrow ground. Views of the Appalachian Valley were to our left and right, and the scenery more than made up for the burning in our lungs and legs. We high-fived every blaze and marker, sang more Disney songs, and eventually came to a second outcropping. We sat down and hungrily dug into the jar of peanut butter, trying to ignore the dirt on our hands and appease our rumbling stomachs. We were so close, and we knew that if we just kept going a little longer, we could make it back to the car and the bag of tortilla chips that we had left there.

Once the trailhead for the FINAL “Rim of the Gap” trail came into view, we let out an excited noise that probably would have been more enthusiastic had we any semblance of voice or energy. The good news? This trail was all downhill. The bad news? This trail was about as slippery, steep, and rocky as they come. I am happy to report that nobody fell, although we do play by Twister rules, which only counts falls as more than hands and legs touching the ground. Although it was all downhill, it was still another hour before we hit the base.

As we walked along, Rebecca stopped short. “Guys!” she shouted, “I see the car! I see it!”

Ami and I peered over the hill to our right, and certainly enough, there was the car. Approximately pea-sized from the height, but it was the car. We all exchanged a glance, and the consensus was clear. We all sat down and slid down the side of the mountain, not caring about the scratches, poison ivy, or tears in our pants. It was 7:00 PM, getting dark, we were thirsty and hungry, and we could go home. But first, we needed water. We sprinted towards the water spigot at an impressive clip for three girls who had just hiked up and down 26 miles of mountains, and in retrospect anyone who saw us must have though we were deranged mountain women who lived in the woods based on our torn clothing, muddy skin, and wild eyes. We didn’t care. Each of us filled our water bottles and chugged.

Rule number one of hiking long distances: DON’T CHUG WATER IMMEDIATELY AFTER YOU HIKE. I thought I couldn’t want to die any more after I had finished the hike, but when all of the water hit my empty stomach at once, I couldn’t handle it. We literally crawled back to the car, ripped open the bag of tortilla chips, and devoured the salty treats in a fashion reminiscent of wild animals. The salt was flying, and none of us said a word in those first few minutes. Eventually, Rebecca took a break from the chips and spoke up.

“Remember how we said this would be a great third date hike? Yeah. Never do this hike with anybody you love.”

She was right, in a way. After 11 hours together on the trail, some parts in tears, other parts in laughter, and most parts just in agony, we all knew more about each other than we ever wanted to. And yet, we knew that we would be at it again the next day, and that somehow we would find even more things to talk about. In retrospect, I think that truly is the mark of a real friendship. Although this hike was torturous, every time I reflect on it I can’t help but smile at how much I love Rebecca, Ami, and Jones Gap State Park. Peanut butter, though… our relationship has never been quite the same.

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