BMT 2020: Day 22, Mt. Sterling to Big Creek

I want to thank you for letting me be myself again

Getting to today wasn't easy.

Certainly, finishing a thru-hike is never easy. What I mean, though, is completing this hike was particularly challenging because of the unusual circumstances given by COVID-19.

DateFriday, November 13, 2020
WeatherClear sky with temperatures from low-40s to mid-60s
Trail ConditionsContinuous descent over a footpath sometimes filled with rocks or roots and always with wet leaves
Today's Miles6.2
Trip Miles289.7

I spent weeks planning for more than one big hike this year, and those plans were all quickly dashed when a worldwide pandemic erupted. Suddenly, out-of-state travel was out of the question. Even going to the grocery store seemed unsafe.

So I mostly stayed home and tried to stay content with walks in my neighborhood. They were good exercise, but they weren't enough.

I needed this thru-hike, and I'm grateful it all worked out.

Just Awesome, Tengo Hambre, and I camped last night at 5,829 feet. Our night on Mt. Sterling had been chilly, and we could hear the wind whistling through the old fire tower standing several yards away.

A Civilian Conservation Corps crew built the 60-foot tower in 1933. Few of these are still standing, and this one is at the highest elevation of all that remain in the eastern U.S.

Our tents were tucked among some trees, which provided protection against the wind. Without a breeze, a little condensation formed inside my tent.

JA walked over this morning to check out the tower while brushing his teeth. A minute later, he hurried back and said with a mouth full of toothpaste, “You guys! You’ve got to see this!”

What he was so excited about was a spectacular sunrise. We climbed the tower to get a better view.

We saw a sea of low clouds slowly, silently rolling through the valleys below. Tops of the clouds glowed brilliant orange where they caught the sun's rays.

Except for an occasional chirp of a bird, there wasn't a sound, not from the view below or from us. I was mesmerized by the sunrise and failed to spend much time looking in other directions at the surrounding Smoky Mountains.

We intended to get an early start this morning. Polecat was picking us up at the trailhead in a few hours, and we didn't want to keep him waiting. Tengo needed enough time to get to my house and clean up before flying home this afternoon.

Watching the sunrise delayed our departure, though, and we didn't get started until after 7:30 a.m.

The route down the Baxter Creek Trail was 6.2 miles, all downhill and in good weather. We knew we wouldn't have any difficulty reaching the parking lot at Big Creek Picnic Area, where we would meet Polecat.

We began with several switchbacks down a long ridge of spruce and fir trees, carpeted by a thick layer of green moss.

As the trail dropped in elevation, we left the evergreens and began to see maple, beech, sassafras, and other deciduous trees.

Before long, the trail joined Baxter Creek as it descended from the ridge.

The trail then followed the creek and occasionally crossed it. A couple of the crossings seemed like they might be a little tricky but posed no real problem.

Unlike yesterday, there wasn't much water on the trail. Still, where the descent was steep, wet leaves made the trail slippery.

When I got within a half-mile of the end, I saw JA and Tengo standing in the middle of the trail. They had stopped to wait for me so the three of us could finish together.

The trail flattened out as it neared Big Creek. The creek was true to its name. It was wide and powerful.

It was also filled with large boulders. This was a heavily-logged area. When a lumber company attempted to float logs down Big Creek, the rocks got in the way, jamming up the creek.

Commercial logging in the area began around 1888. The Crestmont Lumber Company operated a large logging community here from 1908 to 1918. It included a sawmill, a school, homes, and a railroad.

The Civilian Conservation Corps used the Big Creek area in the 1930s for a camp. This was a base of operations for work crews sent throughout the park, where they constructed trails, roads, and picnic areas.

Our last footsteps on the BMT were taken across a bridge over Big Creek. Polecat was waiting for us on the other side. We arrived at 10:30 a.m.

There was no monument here, like at the ends of the Pacific Crest Trail. There wasn't a large sign, like at Mt. Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail.

There was no plaque for Benton MacKaye or even a simple sign to mark this spot as the northern terminus of the trail. There was only a small white blaze and an arrow pointing in the direction of the bridge.

We knew this was the end, though, and posed for a photo.

We celebrated our finish with trail magic. Polecat prepared a delicious breakfast before driving us back to my house.

Polecat's kindness was just one more example in a long list of ways I had been helped on this thru-hike, all of which made it possible. That's not surprising. I've learned time and again that thoughtfulness and generosity from others are intrinsic to thru-hiking.

I'm grateful that Polecat, Tengo Hambre, and Just Awesome were willing to join me. I've always felt a hike is better when it's done with others. Sharing this one with them made it especially memorable.

And to be sure, I could not do a thru-hike without my wife's love and commitment. That cannot be overstated.

An important point to make here, though, is this time around wasn't just a hike I wanted to do. I needed it. The lifestyle changes necessary to cope with the pandemic have not always been easy to make. Until I did this hike, I didn't realize some of the negative effects.

Spending these three weeks in the woods with friends improved my spirit and health. They let me be myself again.

Flamin' eyes of people fear, burnin' into you
Many men are missin' much, hatin' what they do
Youth and truth are makin' love
Dig it for a starter
Dyin' young is hard to take
Sellin' out is harder

Thank you falettinme be mice elf agin*
I want to thank you falettinme be mice elf agin

From "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" by Sly Stone (Sly and the Family Stone)

* Though unusual, this spelling is correctly how Sly Stone wrote "Thank you for letting me be myself again."

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