AT 2017: Day 11, Winding Stair Gap to Wayah Shelter

So many roads to ease my soul

There can be times in your life when something significant happens to you, but you don't realize the significance at that moment.

Today was a day when I finally realized the significance of an event in my life, though it happened nearly 20 years ago.

DateFriday, April 14, 2017
WeatherMostly cloudy, with a couple brief, light showers
Trail ConditionsDry
Today's Miles11.0
Trip Miles120.5

The day began in my grungy motel room in Franklin, N.C. I woke up at 6:30 and quickly repacked all of my gear. I wanted to have time for breakfast, then make it on the first shuttle back to the trailhead at 8:30.

Pat (Uncle Puck) was sitting outside his room across the street, so I went over to chat with him. He said he and his nephew, Joe, were taking a zero day today. I asked him if he would mind if I left my pack in his room while I went to breakfast and he agreed.

I then walked a couple blocks to a local diner called Kountry Kitchen. Songs by Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn playing in the background made the place that much more kountry.

Ron Haven drove the busload of hikers back to Winding Stair Gap. Just as he had when he drove us yesterday to Walmart, he added a tour guide commentary of local sights along the way.

I may not think much of his motel, but I have to give Ron credit for his desire to give hikers what they need at a low cost and for his community boosterism.

The highway at Winding Stair Gap was busy enough that we had to watch carefully and move quickly before crossing the road to resume hiking northbound.

Once we got on the trail it started climbing out of the gap right away, but the ascent was not steep.

It seemed that even since yesterday there were more wildflowers in bloom. Today was the first time I had seen Dutchmen's Breeches.

Bloodroot was also more abundant than before.

A side trail led to Siler Bald, and though I had heard the views from there were worth a .2-mile deviation from the AT, I decided to keep going. I knew there were more views to come.

During this section I seemed to pass or was passed in leapfrog fashion several times by Will, James (who now goes by Cowboy) and Murph.

The trail continued to be easy, or perhaps I've been getting stronger and have taken less notice of ascending sections. At any rate, I didn't have much trouble with the terrain, even though I was carrying more food weight than I had in a couple days.

At Wayah Gap there was the start of a gravel forest service road, which allows sightseers to drive to Wayah Bald. The trail crossed this road a couple times on the ascent.

Almost immediately, the trail once again entered an area that was burned extensively during last fall's wildfires. The farther up the mountain the trail went, the worse the damage appeared.

About two miles before reaching the top of Wayah Bald the Bartram Trail intersected with the AT and the two trails shared the same path.

The Bartram is a 115-mile hiking trail that runs from Russell Bridge in Georgia to Cheoah Bald, where it again intersects with the AT.

The Bartram is named for 18th-century naturalist William Bartram, who traveled over this terrain between March 1773 and January 1777 as he studied native flora and fauna.

As the trail neared the 5,385-foot summit of Wayah Bald, the AT made a turn to join a paved path toward a stone tower at the top.

It was only at this point that I realized I had been here before.

I suppose I should say more accurately, I had always known I had been here before. I had just forgotten exactly where this tower was. I also didn’t realize the significance of being here before until now.

About 20 years ago, in our first year of living in Tennessee, Kim and I brought our sons to this part of North Carolina for a Memorial Day weekend family camping trip.

During that trip we drove up here to the Wayah Bald Tower.

This was significant to me because it was the first time my family and I had walked on the Appalachian Trail.

I don't mean to overstate the noteworthiness of that moment. It's not like I decided then and there I would some day walk the whole route from Georgia to Maine.

Still, I recall we looked at a kiosk that described the Appalachian Trail. We talked about the idea of of hiking it and wondered what it would be like to do that.

It's funny, but I had not thought of that time in many years. When the trail turned the corner and I began walking toward the tower, though, those memories all suddenly came back to me.

To be sure, there were other times I spent on other sections of the trail that ultimately led me to want to hike the whole thing. There were many such moments that collectively led me to plan and prepare for a thru-hike of the trail.

That moment during a family camping trip was important to me just the same, and now I was feeling the importance. That trip planted a seed that took 20 years to grow.

Looking at the tower now was bittersweet. Though it brought back a fond family memory I had not thought about in a long time, I was also looking at the 53-foot tall stone tower and the surrounding trees that had been seriously damaged by a wildfire last fall.

Seeing this made me angry for a moment, but I realized in time this place can become again as it was before.

This was one of only a few structures that was damaged in the fires. Because the tower is mostly made of stone the damage was limited to the roof. There is already an effort underway to make repairs.

The tower was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was unusual, compared to most fire towers. It had three levels.

The tower contained two observation decks. At one time, the tower also contained living quarters for the watchmen, including two drop-down beds attached to the wall and a wood stove for cooking and heat. The watchmen could stay here for up to two months at a time.

Just a few years after it was built, cracks began to develop in the mortar, causing water to seep in and damage the structure. By 1945 the U.S. Forestry Service decided the tower was unsafe, and because of other nearby towers, unnecessary, so it was decommissioned. Two years later, the upper levels were removed.

The tower was listed on the National Historic Lookout Register in 2007.

I quietly reveled in the view and the moment, then decided I needed to move on. More rain seemed likely and I wanted to set up camp at Wayah Shelter before it started.

Tonight would be just one more of many I have spent on this remarkable trail, a place that has become so important to my life.

So many roads I tell you
New York to San Francisco
So many roads I know
All I want is one to take me home
From the high road to the low
So many roads I know
So many roads so many roads

From the land of the midnight sun
Where the ice blue roses grow
Along those roads of gold and silver snow
Howlin' wide or moaning low
So many roads I know
So many roads to ease my soul

From "So Many Roads" by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)

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