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At 34, Jennifer Pharr Davis has conquered her fair share of long-distance hikes, and then some. Her 2011 hike of the Appalachian Trail set a speed record that stood until 2015. She’s completed the Pacific Crest Trail, the Bartram Trail, the Colorado Trail and a seemingly endless list of other trails scattered across six continents.

But in some ways, her 2017 hike of the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail was the most challenging — and most rewarding — of all the routes she’s walked.

My pack was plenty heavy as I set out north on the Appalachian Trial from Carvers Gap, but with my phone on airplane mode and three days in the woods ahead of me, my steps felt light. The sun was warm and bright as a friend and I climbed those initial balds, my dog running joyful circles through the grass. The trail soon gave way to still-bare forests whose floors were alive with wildflowers, the sinking sun casting an enchanting glow over the whole scene.

It was nighttime in the White Mountains, and Steve Claxton was pretty sure he wouldn’t make it till morning. Rain was falling, and winds were ripping through his campsite at 90 miles per hour, sharpening the 40-degree temperatures like a knife. He’d known that camping above treeline was a bad idea, but an incoming storm had forced him to do it — now he was afraid it was the last thing he would ever do. 

“At Mount Washington there’s a huge wall of people who died in the White Mountains, most of them in July and August and most of them from hypothermia,” Claxton said. “I really thought they were going to have to add my name to that.”

As outdoor recreation tourism continues to climb upward in Macon County, community stakeholders are trying to do a better job of tracking their visitor feedback and providing better services. 

When President Woodrow Wilson scrawled the signature that brought the National Park Service into being — 100 years ago, on Aug. 25, 1916 — many of the parks now integral to America’s national identity had yet to be created. 

SEE ALSO: Thousands of acres added to the Parkway for Park Service centennial

There was no Great Smoky Mountains National Park, no Blue Ridge Parkway, no Appalachian Trail. No Grand Teton or Olympic or Mammoth Cave or Acadia National Park. At the time Wilson signed the Organic Act, only 35 national parks and monuments existed, with America the only country to have any.

fr generalstoreThe pungent aroma of morning dew was still in the air and Kelly Sutton had just opened the Big Creek Country Store for the day when the cowbell mounted on the outside of the screen door issued an assertive and punctual clank.

out frThe sun had not quite set when Bradley Veeder fell asleep in his tent May 10, feeling “tired but happy” after a 17-mile day on the Appalachian Trail.

The 49-year-old Montana native was no stranger to trail life, having more than 20 years’ experience backpacking in places ranging from Wyoming to Oregon to Nepal, and he’d been putting in 15- to 20-mile days ever since starting his A.T. thru-hike April 30. Sound sleep was an important part of the recipe. 

black bearThe Great Smoky Mountains National Park is terming an incident that left a Las Vegas man with a puncture wound in his leg a predatory bear attack, but Bill Lea, a renowned wildlife photographer who’s spent years observing bears in the wild, says he’s not buying it.

black bearCampers at the Spence Field Appalachian Trail Shelter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spent a harrowing evening in the backcountry May 10, huddling together for protection as a big black bear roamed the site. Around 11:16 p.m. that evening, it had approached a tent occupied by 49-year-old Bradley Veeder, of Las Vegas, biting the man’s leg through the canvas, then repeatedly returning to the area to snuffle through the then-empty tents.

out frIt’s 4 p.m. on the Appalachian Trail, and while the sun will be awake for hours yet, “hiker midnight,” which strikes at 9 p.m., is drawing steadily nearer. A couple of hikers wander in from the trail, sighing as they slough their packs and plop down on the picnic table under the shelter roof, debating whether to press on toward the Walnut Mountain Shelter, 5 miles away, or stay here for the night.

A third hiker soon joins them. Nick Hyde, a New Zealander known on the trail as “Mountainear,” looks grateful for an excuse to shed his pack and rest his legs. He’s tired, he says, and very sore. It isn’t long before he, as well as the other two hikers — Khanh “Chicken Feet” Dung and Stan Walters — decide that this is as far as they’ll get tonight.

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