When I bought my home inside the 5000-acre resort of Wolf Laurel in the mountains of western North Carolina, I never imagined that at the other end of my mortgage I would find hallowed ground. But four months and 155 hiking miles later, I discovered what the local’s and area old timers already knew—this was God’s country.
I was introduced to the sanctity of the soil by the emerging Wolf Pack, a group of women aged 46-75 who donned back packs and high expectations to venture out onto the trails of the Appalachian Mountains in search of fitness, friendship and adventure. Hiking two days a week we would enjoy easier trails on Tuesdays and tackle more strenuous ones on Saturdays.
Five of us made up the initial Wolf Pack and while we were mostly novices we shared much in common–a love of nature, ability to hike four hours in mountainous terrain at a moderate pace, appropriate gear (hiking sticks, pack, shoes, etc.) and, above all, to be at ease with a substantially reduced level of modesty while on the trail. You see . . . there would be no commodes where we were going. Our inaugural hike would take us from Big Bald (at 5616 feet, one of the highest mountains in NC) south to Sam’s Gap, a trail that bordered Wolf Laurel on the north. This six-mile, three and one half hour trek would be along the Appalachian Trail, a thin ribbon of a path that stretched 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. Thru hikers—those who wore 40-pound packs and slept in the open or in lean-tos along the trail—would have hiked this section north but because it was our spring warm up, we decided to head south, a somewhat easier hike.
Layered in clothes, we began at 8:30 a.m. on a crisp mid-May morning at the summit of Big Bald. There, the Appalachian Trail bisected Tennessee, to the north, and North Carolina, to the south. Since the State Forestry Service maintained grassy vegetation on the bald to a maximum level of 18 inches, we were able to enjoy a remarkable 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding mountains—a simply breathtaking sight.
Twenty miles to our north the charming town of Erwin, Tennessee still snuggled in mountainous shadows. To our east, barns and silos of local farms dotted the valley area known as Bee Log and glistened in the bright morning sun. To our south, tin roofs, adorning the country club, villas and lodge units within Wolf Laurel, shimmered below us. Beyond that and to our west, long stretches of green fairways and ski runs traced slopes up and down the adjoining mountains. In the far distance, we could make out the silhouettes of Mt Pisgah to the south and Roan Mountain to the northeast.
On this particular day, the sky was a deep Carolina blue and clouds were few. However, weather on Big Bald could be fickle. If it was clear, within minutes the sky could turn sharply, enshrouding the mountain with thick clouds and cold, howling winds. Of course, the opposite was true as well. Those that lived around the mountain had a saying—if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.
As we descended the bald I wondered if we’d be able to see “Hog” Greer’s Cave, a 10-foot by 10-foot den marked by an outcropping of rock that had housed the notorious hermit. I knew it was close but its exact location was still a mystery, residing in the gray matter of only a handful of locals.
In the early 1800’s a young German immigrant, David Greer, spurned by the daughter of a general, ascended Big Bald and made the cave his home. For 35 years he kept to himself, cultivated potatoes and raised hogs. Along with his nickname, local folk also referred to him as ‘King of the Bald.’ When the local government tried to tax his land he showed up in court with a shotgun and threatened the judge. Later, he was killed by a blacksmith whose tools he had borrowed without permission. So much for the King.
We hiked single file into the thick surrounding forest with me as lead and Nita as sweep (the last hiker). Lois Lynn, Alice and June filled the gap between us. I had been given the dubious position of lead because I was not afraid of snakes and it was the lead’s responsibility to make sure the slithering creatures were noted and, at times, even removed from the path so the others could safely pass. Of course as lead I also encountered all the spider webs that had been woven the night before—a much more distasteful task than removing snakes, in my opinion. Yet heaven was only a step away.
With leaves yet to appear on the white oaks and red maples, the sun had clothed the forest floor in a vanilla robe of spring phacelia. Complimenting this backdrop, white, blushing pink and plumb-colored Trillium peered proudly from beneath fallen branches. May Apple and Yellow Adders Tongue, wrestled free from the noose of winter, displayed their white and golden faces with pride and muted orange shelf fungus clung horizontally to trees in large patches.
The familiar white blaze of the Appalachian Trail guided us as we trekked over sparkling streams swollen from winter snows, through Rhododendron thickets whose bare branches would soon be a profusion of mauve blooms, down into valleys of emerging light green vegetation, and up to rich meadows of flowing spring grasses. Conversations were as lively as our steps and our camaraderie blossomed as the miles melted behind us.
At a makeshift campsite where we stopped to hydrate we met Wendy, a single thru hiker from Minnesota. A tall, lean, physically solid twenty-two year old she had taken a year off from college to experience the “adventure of a lifetime.” No, she wasn’t concerned about traveling alone in fact she relished the solitude. But as most of us were mothers, she readily assured us there were plenty of other hikers along the trail to keep her company and safe. She accepted some fruit, a most prized commodity on the trail, and bid us adieu.
All too soon the trail ended and we arrived at SR23 where we had left a car. With the satisfaction that comes from having completed a good workout or intimate conversation with a best friend, we eagerly piled into the vehicle and drove two miles south to the rustic local eatery, Little Creek Café, where we treated ourselves to the country’s most delicious hamburgers.
Next week the Wolf Pack would hike a sister trail—Big Bald north to SR19W—and the following week we would hike another. And as the months passed, the Wolf Pack would grow upwards to twelve hikers and cover over one hundred and fifty miles of trails—Rattlesnake Lodge, Devil’s Fork Gap, Sassafras Falls and beyond. With my soul uplifted by the splendor of spring in the mountains and comforted by deepening friendships, on that inaugural hike with the Wolf Pack I had indeed found hallowed ground—God’s country—heaven.