Crossing the Cherohala Skyway

Cut down a man in cold blood

Day 13, Whigg Meadow to Nichols Cove Trail

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The temperature overnight was cold, though not nearly as chilly as I expected. When the temperature dropped quickly as the sun went down last night, I assumed it would soon be below freezing.

That didn't seem to be the case when I woke up this morning. Though close to freezing, there wasn't any frost on my tent.

Weather Clear sky with temperatures in the low mid-30s early and warming to the upper 60s
Trail Conditions Some ups and downs, then a strenuous and steep descent of more than 3,000 feet
Today's Miles 15.5 miles
Trip Miles 178.3 miles

Tengo must have stayed warm because he overslept. That was okay with me. When I finished packing I wandered around Whigg Meadow to check it out. I was unable to see much of it yesterday because I arrived so late.

Whigg Meadow

After the Tellico River Lumber Company stripped these mountains bare and a wildfire destroyed what remained, farmers moved in and attempted to make a living off the land. There wasn't much ground suitable for growing crops, but the mountaintops were good for grazing livestock during hot summers.

Whigg Meadow was one of those grazing fields. A cabin once stood here, which was the home of the Whigg family. They grew a few subsistence crops and raised sheep in the meadow.

Cattle continued to graze here well into the 1970s.

A path leading from Whigg Meadow

We left camp at 7:30 a.m. The trail from the meadow was a narrow cut through a stand of mountain laurel and other shrubs.

The trail was above 4,900 feet in elevation, but there were no views because of the thick vegetation.

Talking to bear hunters

The trail took us gradually down to Mud Gap. Along the way, we stopped to talk with a couple of bear hunters. They told us they hadn't shot any bears yet but didn't seem to mind. They were enjoying their time outdoors.

Cherohala Skyway

At the end of the 1.6-mile descent, we came to Mud Gap and the Cherohala Skyway.

The road is a 43-mile national scenic byway that weaves across and around North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. Its name is taken from the two national forests the road traverses, Chero_kee and Nanta_hala. From an elevation of 900 feet near Tellico Plains, Tennessee, the skyway climbs to above 5,400 feet at the state line at Haw Knob.

For many years, area residents had complained about the poor quality of roads that connected the two states. Then in 1958, an idea that started as a joke became a stunt to draw attention to the problem. Citizens organized an old west wagon train across the mountains. Politicians took note, and Congress made the first allocation for the construction of scenic byway in 1962.

The highway wasn't finished until 1996, and despite being entirely on federally-owned land, it cost more than $100 million to build.

Grave marker of Kirkland Bushwackers victim

We found a grave marker on the trail, not far from where the trail met the road. "Here lies an unknown man killed by the Kirkland Bushwackers," read the simple granite slab.

The gang referenced in the marker was named for its leader, John Jackson Kirkland. He and most of the other members were deserters during the Civil War. They roamed the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina to harass, rob, and sometimes kill locals, especially those suspected of being Union sympathizers.

There aren't many details about what led to the death of the unknown man murdered near Mud Gap, but other stories describe the gang's bloodthirsty ruthlessness. One tells of when they were waiting to rob a Union Army payroll officer. A couple with their baby stumbled into the gang's hiding spot. When the baby wouldn't stop crying, it was murdered. One of the gang members stuffed the baby's body in a hollow tree.

When Kirkland died in 1902 at age 75, he had never been arrested or served a warrant for his crimes. According to legend, no law officer wanted to confront him.

Crossing a field near John's Knob

The trail crossed a large, grassy field. Although it wasn't apparent to my eye, this area had been a gravel quarry when the Cherohala Skyway was constructed.

The trail rounded a mountain called John's Knob. This was the site of a tragic plane crash in 1982. All nine crew members of a U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter died on a training flight when their plane slammed into the mountaintop during bad weather.

Tengo Hambre on the trail

After going around John's Knob, the trail dropped to a gravel road, then climbed back to the skyway. All this way, we had been walking parallel to the highway, though it was rarely visible.

When the road came into view again, the trail crossed it near Unicoi Crest.

Lady Samantha

A parking lot with a scenic overlook was here, and we met three people preparing for a day hike on the section we had just walked. One of them told us her trail name was Lady Samantha, a name taken from the song by Elton John and covered by Three Dog Night. She said she was a maintainer for this section.

Just Awesome gets some trail magic

When they found out today was JA's birthday, they gave him some brownies.

Walking on the Cherohala Skyway

From the overlook, we had to walk along the highway for a short distance to the next parking lot. We didn't stay on the trail because a bridge was washed out.

The bridge crossed a stream that was probably dry, but comments posted in our navigation app said the road walk was a better route. Although there was no shoulder to walk along the road, there wasn't any traffic to cause a problem for us.

A view from the Cherohala Skyway

The elevation and open space on the road provided some distant views. Far to the south, nearly 37 miles away, stood Big Frog Mountain. That was the mountain we climbed in the rain on Day 7.

Leaving Beech Gap

When we left the Cherohala Skyway for good at Beech Gap, we followed an old logging road. The route was along the border of Citico Creek Wilderness. The trail never entered the 16,213-acre wilderness, which had been the largest in Tennessee until the adjacent Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness was expanded recently.

Most of the forest here is second-growth, having grown since the destructive logging and wildfire of the 1920s.

Leaving Cold Spring Gap

When the trail reached Cold Spring Gap, it turned to begin a steep climb up a ridge of the Unicoi Mountains. I had hiked this section of trail at least four times before, but haven't been here in a few years. I had forgotten how steep the climb was.

Climbing to Bob Bald

We were climbing to Bob Bald, which is where my sons' Boy Scout troop made several weekend backpacking trips.

eroded trail

I also forgot how eroded the trail was. For some stretches, we had to walk in a deep trench. Overgrown rhododendron that crowded the trail didn't make this section any easier.

Tengo stops to collect water

I knew from my previous trips to Bob Bald that a spring was located near the top, but I wasn't sure where. Before getting to the bald, we found water flowing from a spring on the trail, however, so we didn't need to hunt for the other spring.

A view from Bob Bald

My main memory of those previous trips was the incredible view from the bald. Today's weather was ideal for that, with a clear sky and not much haze.

It was possible from here to see several mountaintops that are crossed by the Appalachian Trail. Among them were Tray Mountain (43 miles away), Standing Indian (35 miles away), and Wayah Bald (28 miles away).

Lunch break at Bob Bald

The time was 12:30 p.m. when we got to the bald, so we stopped to relax in the warm sun and eat lunch.

The trail narrows over a ridge

When we resumed our hike, the trail continued to follow the top of the ridge. It became narrow and overgrown in a few spots, and we also had to cross a couple of blowdowns.

This trail section took us to Stratton Bald and Haoe Bald. We straddled the border of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness before turning to enter it.

A view of Cheoah Bald

Haoe Bald is now overgrown and no longer a true bald, but as we approached it, another view was open. This one included one more Appalachian Trail landmark, Cheoah Bald. It was just visible on the horizon, nearly 18 miles away.

I will not forget the climb up that mountain. It is one of the most strenuous in the southeast part of the AT.

A steep and rocky descent

While the views from the ridge had brought back memories of my 2017 thru-hike of the AT, the descent from the ridge caused more flashbacks I might have preferred to forget. The terrain was similar to some of the AT's most difficult sections.

It was extremely steep, and most of the way down, the trail was eroded to expose large rocks and tangled roots. Some blowdowns were also a challenge to climb over or around.

Leaves covering most of the trail made the descent perilous at times. I slipped and fell twice when I failed to see a rock or root under the leaves.

Tengo Hambre and Polecat

The descent eventually became easier but remained steady as it dropped more than 3,000 feet.

Now that we were in a wilderness area, there were no blazes to mark the trail. There were signs at junctions with other trails, however.

Tengo Hambre

Even when the trail became less steep than before, the descent didn't let up much. My knees were feeling every step.

At last, I got a break when I reached a parking area just outside the wilderness area. Polecat was there, but JA hadn't stopped to wait for us.

We talked to some bear hunters who were waiting for their dogs to return. The dogs had GPS devices attached to their collars, so the hunters knew where they were.

One of the hunters asked me how old I was and how far I had walked. He had a hard time grasping that a 64-year-old could walk a 300-mile trail, let alone the AT or the PCT.

A note left by Just Awesome, taped to a sign

When we reached a three-way junction with the Nichols Cove and Yellowhammer Gap trails, we found a note JA had attached to the trail sign there. If he hadn't left it, we might not have known he found a good campsite a short distance down Nichols Cove Trail.

By the time we reached the campsite, he had already pitched his tent, but he said he hadn’t been there long.

The time was now 6 p.m., and the last daylight was fading fast. By the time I had my tent set up, there was no daylight left and I had difficulty finding a tree branch to throw over my bear bag rope.

I was able to eventually hang my food, but it wasn't done well. It was more a "bear piñata" than a secure way to protect it.

I just jumped the watchman right outside the fence
Took his rings, four bucks in change, ain't that heaven-sent
Hurts my ears to listen, Shannon, burns my eyes to see
Cut down a man in cold blood, Shannon, might as well be me

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