HIKING THE PISGAH RIDGE, ASHEVILLE’S BREW PUBS AND THE CHARCOAL LIGHTER AISLE AT INGLE’S GROCERY – OR HOW TO AVOID MISERY

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• Where: Trail 347, Middle Prong Wilderness, near Waynesville, NC, and adjacent to the Pisgah National Forest
• Distance: 16.62 miles, which included 2.15 miles from cars to campsite, which we walked four times.
• Dates: Friday, April 23 to Monday, April 26, 2021

By Mark Neikirk

The sun, having burned off the morning fog at 5,400 feet, had by midday found its way to dapple Flat Laurel Creek, brightening its streambed of brown and black and white and gold stones as if they were themselves tiny suns.

Just past a bend shaded by the laurels that give the stream its name, the water squeezed itself between two larger stones. There, a single wild brook trout fluttered its tail to hold its place against the hydraulic force coming toward it. The trout was was the image of faith. A bug would come its way. The trout’s ancient instincts knew this as a certainty.

The geological and biological whims that converged to create this moment are nearly beyond comprehension. Millions of years of chaos becoming order, one random interaction of molecular configuration after another being sorted toward this simple, spectacular scene. This beautiful little fish, or rather its ancestors, came here from the northeast, where glaciers had turned the rivers and lakes to ice. Anadromous – that is, able to live in either fresh or saltwater – they swam into the ocean, then down the coast, worked their way through the estuaries and streams to the Blue Ridge mountains, and bred themselves into vitality. Mere mustard seeds next to the glaciers, brook trout moved themselves to these mountains.

Before all of that, volcanoes, the uplifting of tectonic plates, and collisions of continents sculpted the landscape, which was further shaped by the elements, including the glaciers, and, finally, clothed in flora of nearly unfathomable variety. Then came the bugs and birds and salamanders and frogs and the mammals, including us.

Sunday, April 25, 2021, owed itself to all of that. 

The afternoon followed a cold night, unfriendly to insects. The bugs of the Blue Ridge have evolved over their eons to stay put when cold, come out when warm. The same sun that lit the stones ignited a hatch of wispy gray flies, each no larger than a speck of dust. The trout began to notice and nibble, rising to the surface to snatch a snack. Eric Krosnes positioned himself on the bank beside the V of water passing between the two stones. He placed a dry fly in the water to drift toward the fish, tantalizingly visible. About every fifth drift, the fish attacked but never fully took the fly.

It’s a mystery as to why the fish let it pass by sometimes, attacked others. Whatever the reason, it was fun to watch. Thrilling, actually. The mystery being part of the thrill.

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This trip was to Pisgah National Forest and its Middle Prong Wilderness immediately east of the Nantahala National Forest. This was new territory for us. We considered going back to Dolly Sods in West Virginia or back to the Smokies or the Sheltowee Trace. At our planning meeting, we watched a video of the Pisgah trails – and that was that. Its high places are a mile above sea level, and its highest places are another 1,000 feet up, which is impressive when you consider that the sea itself is barely more than 300 miles away. These mountains must gain their elevation quickly. Those high places provide spectacular views. On the way to them, water cascades over slick cliffs in a sort of Eastern version of Yosemite. And, to quote the Bible (Norman Maclean’s, not the church’s), a river runs through it. In this particular place, that river is Flat Laurel Creek, where wild brook trout live.

Fishing is a recent addition to our backpacking trips, and not something every one of us enjoys. Hence, five of the seven of us who made this trip were not fishing on Sunday as Eric and I were. Four went on an 8-mile hike, climbing above 6,000 feet to Sam Knob, where the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains was breathtaking. If you remember the cover of the novle Cold Mountain, this was those same blue layers of mountain silhouettes as nonfiction. Atop the knob are outcroppings of stone, easily as stunning as what you might encounter out West, though here they softened by vegetation. Locally, Sam Knob is an evening destination to climb and savor the sunset. Nationally unsung, Sam Knob should be, but with luck, it won’t be, lest it be overrun.

The hike, like the fishing, was a celebration of a turn in the weather. We arrived Friday and hiked two miles from Pisgah Ridge just off State Highway 215 to a campsite. Cloudy and cool, it was right for a light puffy jacket, gloves optional. By nightfall, as the sky cleared enough to display a full moon, the temperatures dropped into the 30s. The campfire and another layer of clothing made it comfortable to be outdoors. But as the night settled in, so did the wind and rain. We had set up two tarps, anticipating the coming front. By morning, the wind was whipping the tarps with a fury. The grommet in the corner of one was ripped away, and that corner flopped spasmodically and uselessly like an unhinged sail. We repaired it, then hunkered beneath it boil water for coffee and tepid oatmeal. With the regularity of a metronome, a pocket in the tarp would fill to capacity and then spill over, dumping a bucket’s worth of rain over the side. We moved our camp chairs into a tighter circle to avoid being drenched. I began to shiver as if hypothermia was imminent. "I've never seen you shiver," Eric remarked, and the two of us have spent nearly a year of lives together in the woods. 

Bob Pauly, late to crawl out of the warmth of his tent and sleeping bag, arrived at the tarp with a plan. Suppose we leave the tents and tarps, hike back to the cars, drive to Asheville, about 40 miles away, and check out the brew pubs?

Mark Goetz, who is one of us but not on this trip, concocted a new rule for hiking a few trips ago: No misery. I have not fully embraced it; sometimes misery is required to be rewarded with the finest things. To see Sam Knob, you have to run out of breath a little on the way up. To catch a trout, you have to lose a fly caught in a tree on a back cast. To be here at all, you have to ignore a weather forecast that advises you to say home.

But Bob's bit of misery control seemed sound. Why waste a day watching water accumulate and dissipate from the top of a plastic tarp when we could, instead, visit the fabled breweries of Asheville?

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Generally, one thinks of backpacking as a multi-day journey into the woods, with everything you need for the duration stuffed into a pack weighing, if you have done it right, less than 30 pounds. A light pack makes walking easier, and for a group of hikers our age (average: 65 1/2 years old), less weight means less stress on failing joints. There are times my back seizes as if someone has taped a board to it so that I cannot bend and then, in lockstep with my stride, an invisible hammer pounds on that board, striking with each blow a particularly sensitive nerve. I grimace in sync with each step. Others among us have arthritis in a hip or a knee or both. No one’s lungs are what they once were. Besides age, some of us had COVID, and recovery is not full even months later. Might we, then, be forgiven for redefining backpacking and for choosing not to sit all day under a tarp in the dreary, drenching monotony of a 24-hour rainfall? Most of our rain gear dates at least to the Bush Administration. The first one.

Asheville is a town bustling with hip but it was coagulated with a line of people and their umbrellas waiting to get into Wicked Weed Brewing. We did not come to Asheville to stand in the rain. We ended up down the street at Dssolver, a smaller taproom with a Jimi Hendrix vibe and good beer with fun names. Thank You for Existing (a Kölsch). My Name is Ilsa (a hoppy ale). Brain Oasis (a hazy IPA). We each had the pint of our choice, then walked over to Farm Burger, which had, you guessed it, burgers. Made from cows. From farms. Suffice it to say, Farm Burger's branding team did not have as much fun naming the place as the Dssolver team.

The burgers were pretty good but, should you go, don’t believe it when the guy taking your order says, “Our medium is more like medium rare.” Trusting that, I ordered medium only to get well done. I sent it back, something one typically does with a steak not a burger. But since this snotty little farm fresh burger joint was so cocksure about its “pink in the middle” medium burgers, I wanted to make a point. I failed to make it. hey just brought me another well-done burger, this one smaller. I wondered if they just took the previous one, from which I’d taken a bite, and put it on a new bun. I dared not look. I was, by now, hungry and preferred ignorance to knowledge. Along Pike Street in Covington, Ky.,  as U.S. 127 turns toward Park Hills, Ky., and gritty urban turns to manicured suburban, is Herb & Thelma's. There, a cheeseburger is half the price of a Farm Burger and twice as tasty. Hip is not always haute when it comes to burgers. I mention only to let Asheville's food scene know where to set the bar.

The burger was, at least, superior to a protein bar with the consistency and taste of chewable multi-vitamin, and the lunch of choice had we had not come to Asheville. The Farm Burger ambiance was superior, too, to a tarp.

Fed and quenched, we headed next (should I say hiked?) to the Mast General Store in downtown Asheville. It is a North Carolina-based outdoors store with all the brands familiar to the backpacking community, from A (Arc’teryx, which makes clothes) to Z (Zero Tolerance, which makes knives). In we walked, like sisters and aunts on Black Friday, armed with American Express and an urgency to shop. It was time to do something about those rain suits. We re-entered the wilderness looking like a GQ fashion spread on the outdoors. We are, after all, a handsome lot, some more than others. And we were dry.

We made one more stop before leaving town. We had decided to buy a starter log – one of those molded of paraffin and wood chips and guaranteed to burn. As long as he was shopping, John Hennessey decided to leave nothing to chance. He returned from inside the Ingle's grocery store with a log, a small bag of charcoal, a bottle of starter fluid, and a small bundle of oak kindling. Our odds of having a fire on Saturday evening went up significantly, no matter how rain-soaked the firewood might be.

Are you fan of irony? Here’s some.

When we first arrived at the campsite on Friday evening, the fire pit had some old, partially burned charcoal among the charred firewood. I distinctly remember someone asking in obvious disgust, “Who brings charcoal to the backcountry?” Twenty-four hours later, the answer was: Us. Seeing how well it worked – it starts right up and creates a red-hot bed of coals that keeps the firewood collected from the forest burning – we wondered if we’d ever leave home without it. Eric Krosnes, a wunderkind with fire, suggested we vacuum seal a single briquette of MatchLight (it comes pre-saturated in starter fluid), just as you might vacuum-seal dried fruit. That would minimize the mess and, heck, you wouldn’t even have to unseal it. Just light the plastic and, presto, your fire is blazing. Maybe the contestants on television’s Naked & Afraid should consider bringing such a thing for their 21-day endurance tests. No misery. Starting to like it.

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Meet the Patio Boys, spring 2021 trip.

Always first, Silver Pops, so named as a tribute to his silver, now white, hair and to his age, which, to repeat an answer he popularized with us long before it was the tag line, as it is now, in a pharmaceutical ad: “Age is a number and mine is unlisted.” Hint: Think the Truman administration and estimate from there. His real name is John Curtin, who, like five of us on this trip, is a grandfather now.

He likes to remind us that his longer trail name is “Silver Poppins” – as in Mary Poppins, who had that travel satchel with an endless supply of everything. Between his backpack and his fanny pack, John seems to have one of each.. He came to my rescue because in my haste to pack light, I managed to bring a fly rod but no reel. I borrowed his. I think if asked him for a Sunday New York Times and a breakfast croissant, he could have produced both along with a Starbucks. In fact, I know he brought what he calls his “foo-foo” coffee, a little baggie full of powdered Maxwell House International Cafe Vanilla Caramel Latte.

Next is Mooch, Bob Pauly, so named because he claims to bring food but so far as anyone can tell, does not. When it is time for dinner, he has a fork. And he has the confident knowledge that everyone has brought too much food. He never goes hungry. When he reads this, he will text me and say: “I brought dinner.” He did in fact bring at least one Mountain House freeze-dried dinner, but the truth remains. Mooch mooches.

Now, before you put Bob on the bad guy list, understand his redemption. No Bob, no Patio Boys. He organizes our trips, maps out options for each one, and parcels out advice, most of it useful. As one of number, Frenchie, put it: “When Bob knows something, he knows it.” Bob showed Frenchie how to set up his tent so that it would withstand heavy rain, which it did. He told him to sleep with fewer clothes so that his sleeping bag could do its thing, which is to trap warm air in a cocoon of nylon and down. Too much clothing inhibits the effect.

Speaking of Frenchie, allow me to introduce you to Steve Haughey, the Patio Boy with the best trail name. He earned it on his first trip, when he dumped out his bourbon to save weight but come morning pulled out a coffee grinder and a French press to make artisanal coffee. He still brings the press but grinds the beans at home. And he has the campsite’s best coffee. No contest.

Steve stayed in camp while Eric and I fished and the others hiked. He was in a terrible bicycling accident a few years back, and his legs aren’t what they used to be. He’s slower and his steps come with pain. But you know what: He made the trip. And while the rest of us enjoyed the stream and the mountains, Steve attended to camp. We returned at the end of the day Sunday to find the tarps down and folded, firewood collected and stacked, and Steve ensconced in a fold-up chair, reading Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy by Adam Jentleson, and thusly described by one impressed reviewer: “An insider’s account of how politicians representing a radical white minority of Americans have used ‘the world’s greatest deliberative body’ to hijack our democracy.” Light reading.

B-Goat, that is, Billy Goat, is Bill Ankenbauer, who is the nicest of us. No contest. How one man can be as kind and guileless is something I'll leave to a psychiatrist or to Shakespeare, but that’s B, whose trail name derives from his size 16 feet, which are as surefooted as a goat. It also fits since a goat, especially in mountainous places, is a beast of burden. Bill is too nice to have a trail name associated with other beasts of burden. Neither donkey (aka, ass) or a mule would do. Besides, his Christian name is William, Bill, Billy. Point is, no one carries more weight into the wilderness. Silver Pops is close, but his pack, like Mary Poppin’s satchel, is magical. It converts things to ether. B-Goat carries actual, physical weight. His pack must weigh 60 pounds – twice what it should. He likes his luxuries, including a soda to take some of the sting out of Kentucky straight bourbon. He's a cameraman by profession, and so he has some of that gear along with gadgets like a GPS. Actually, I have no idea what’s in that pack. The kitchen sink maybe. What I do know is that the B-Goat can by God carry it.

Bull, the other animal-derived trail name, belongs to John Hennessey, who, for us, defines toughness. If the Bull is not up for it, then maybe we should not do it. Legend has it, the Bull beat Mooch up when they were boys, though the Bull denies it – and if you knew John, you would believe him when he said, “Oh, Bob, you know that’s not true,” adding an Irish chuckle. 

The Bull is a lover not a fighter. He's given more to helping than hurting. But he also told us a story once about his football coach putting him in the boxing ring with a bigger fellow so the other boys could see what toughness looked like. The poor bigger guy took a beating. The Bull felt guilty. So There's reason to doubt Bob's account. But I didn’t grow up with them, so I cannot say for sure. All I know is that Hennessey is like Rocky in the ring. Any ring. He’s not going down no matter how hard you hit him. On a trip when it rains and turns cold, you need someone like the Bull to remind you of the limits. If he’s OK with going to Asheville for a beer, then going to Asheville for a beer is not wimping out. It’s what a tough guy would do. It’s a wonder we didn’t run into Chuck Norris at Dssolver.

One Match, our youngest member at 56, is so named because he can start a fire no matter the condition with one match. The next morning, he can start it with no matches by finding the slightest ember glowing red, even if it is the size of pea. It’s impressive to watch.

One Match, aka, Eric Krosnes, has the mind of a problem-solver. But nothing draws him quite like fire. We were setting up the tarps Friday in expectation of the rain on Saturday, and he was all in – visualizing where the cord should go, which trees would work, what height things should be, what angles the tarp should assume for maximum drainage. And then Silver Pops said, “We need to get a fire going.” Bang! Like that, One Match abandoned tarp duty and set about making a fire. You might think this incongruent given his embrace of charcoal and starter fluid. But when you like fire, you like all forms of it. It’s no coincidence that he carries with him a piezo ignitor, stormproof matches, a fancy Nancy lighter, and some magic dust for starting fires in any conditions. He rarely uses any of it. But a pyro-perfectionsist likes his toys.

Finally, there is me, the Captain, so named because Mooch could not remember Neikirk 30 years ago, so he took to calling me Captain Kirk after the commander of the Starship Enterprise, who, as it happens, has the same birthday as me, March 22, though I was born in 1955 and he 278 years later in 2233. I knew none of that at the time, not being a Trekkie and incapable of separating my pinkie and ring finger from my middle index fingers, a sine qua non to be a Trekkie.

Captain stuck, and it is now what my granddaughter calls me rather than Grandpa, because when asked what I wanted my grandfather name to be I answered off of the top of my head, “Captain.” I wasn’t ready to be a grandpa. Didn’t feel old enough. Most people don’t when it first happens. In any case, the name stuck on the trail and at home. I, however, still cannot manage the Vulcan salute.

That’s us, as fine a crew as you’ll find. We’ve been through a lot together. Hikes, yes, but also graduations, weddings, funerals, and the birth of grandchildren. We know firsthand about cancer and stroke and heart attacks. But malady, meet your match. Friendship. Misery, we are not your tribe.

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When it comes to minimizing misery, maximizing sleep is important.

How well one sleeps in the woods is a matter of serious consideration. Some nights can be bliss. Sweet dreams abound inside a down bag atop an air mattress in a one-person tent. The Patio Boys have a tradition of not sleeping two to a tent, though that would save weight as the tent could be split between two packs We’ve joked often about being homophobic, as if one’s sexuality would magically convert in one night of sleeping with a sweat-stinking, farting, snoring man. The actual reason has to do with the fact that sleeping next to a stinking, farting, snoring man would be unpleasant, no matter what sexuality your DNA gave you. It’s much better if the snoring is a faint sound from the tent next door. And if you are sleeping alone, lower the cabin pressure (i.e., fart) to your intestine’s content. No one will be bothered. As for the body stink, let me introduce you to an amazing product called the Dude Wipe.

One-man tents do not remedy all woes. One of the rarely discussed facts of sleeping like this is how much noise an air mattress makes. Frenchie, who moved his tent closer to mine to get out of the puddle where he had first pitched it, reports a lack of sleep resulting from the constant squeaking of me tossing and turning on my pad. He sleeps on a lightweight cot that is quiet, but it cost amount as much as a Mercedes and take the better part of an evening to assemble. Naturally, he did not much such an investment of money and time only to have me keep him awake with my squeaky air matter. But to be blunt, not my problem. He should perhaps add an Ambien to his backpacking necessities and then he could sleep through the disturbances. Or better yet, move his tent. He snores.

Barring an equipment disaster, like a punctured air mattress, the biggest threat to a good night’s sleep is weather. More precisely, it is the combination of foul weather and poor equipment. A rainstorm is relaxing if the tent stays dry. If the tent leaks, misery rules. Our tents were certainly put to the test by the Blue Ridge Mountain wind and rain. All passed. Eureka. Big Agnes. Nemo. All get an A+ without grading on the curve. 

We cannot say the same for our sleeping bags. Sleeping bags come with a temperature rating. A 30-degree bag is supposed to keep you warm if it is 30 degrees or above. It does not. Sleeping bag rating are like the heights of the players on a basketball program, where no matter how short the point guard might be he is always at least five ten.

Our forecast called for lows in the mid-30s, so a 30-degree bag should be fine. And it weighs almost nothing at two pounds. A 0-degree bag, in contrast, doubles that. The trick in considering carry comfort and sleeping comfort is to select a bag that lightens the pack but wards off the nighttime chill. I brought a 15-degree bag, which should have done the trick since the lows were expected to be in the 30s. Why, then, did I wake up cold at least once every hour through all of Friday night and Sunday night? Not because it was 15 degrees out.

I wasn’t alone. John Hennessey’s Apple Watch keeps a record of his sleep patterns. At home, his sleep score is 65 to 79. Basically, 6.5 hours of solid sleep. Friday was 73, but showed 9 hours and 55 min, mostly awake tent time. The first night was chilly and restless. Saturday, with the cloud cover keeping the mountains warmer, his score 84, an impressive 8 hours and 17 minutes. It’s now his PR sleep. “My best night of sleep in ages,” John said on the way home.

Sunday was another story. The night was clear and cold. We woke up to frozen water bottles. John’s sleep score was 70, with several awake bumps due to the cold. He doubled the foot of his sleeping bag by folding it over to keep his freezing feet warmer. B-Goat put his puffy jacket around his feet and his fleece over top of his sleeping back. The only person who stayed warm was One Match, who brought a 0-degree bag that was up to the task of keeping him warm on a night that got into the 20s. But that’s no guarantee. John’s bag was rated to zero, too.

At Farm Burger, B-Goat and Bull selected a brew called Perfect Day IPA. It was an omen. Though Sunday was cold and foggy all morning, it was cloudless and blue by noon. Eric and I set up our rods and discussed where to begin fishing. Bob, Bill, and both Johns set out for Sam Knob. They would log 29,711 steps, according to the Apple Watch, more than twice the tally on Friday and Monday and 10,000 more than Saturday. We were camped at 5,500 feet. Sam Knob was at 6,045 feet. They walked down that, then up to Tennent mountain at 6,040 feet, then up again along the Art Loeb Trial to Black Balsam Knob at 6,414 feet.

According to a plaque on the trail, Arthur J. Loeb was an industrialist and a conservationist, which seems a little like being a Wall Street hippie or a liberal Republican. Can someone be both? Mr. Loeb, who managed a paper mill that is now an active superfund site because, according to a watchdog website it poses or once posed “a potential risk to human health and/or the environment due to contamination by one or more hazardous wastes.” In 2002, a federal judge ordered the company, which by then was protecting itself with bankruptcy laws, to keep pollution control systems in place – assuming courts in other states where the bankruptcy was being litigated would provide funding to accomplish the task. It’s a sordid and common story of corporate greed and irresponsibility.

Perhaps Mr. Loeb, who died of a tumor at age 54, is not culpable. And perhaps he was, as the plaque states “a hiker who deeply loved these mountains.”

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The next pool down from where a brook trout watched Eric’s fly as if to decide whether it was the meal he wanted, I cast a tiny, yellow dry fly – I’m not sure exactly what it was other than hairy – toward a cutbank with overhanging mountain laurel. In an instant, the fluttering tug of a brook trout pulled the line taut. These are not big fish. Seven inches, about the size of this one, is considered a good fish. Yet they fight as if their species depended on defeating this thing tugging them from ancient waters.

And why wouldn’t they fight with such ferocity? The species on the other end of line, though given to praising the brook trout, is also responsible for its demise. We are all Art Loebs.

When we clear cut a forest, as we have, we warm the water and reduce its oxygen until the stream is no longer suitable for brook trout. When we dredge a stream’s gravel beds, or worse, dynamite them, for a highway or bridge, the brook trout’s breeding bed is unmade. When we flush a toilet or a million of them and then “clean” the sewage to an acceptable effluent (such a pretty word for parts per million of residual shit), we forget it is not acceptable to trout and their eggs. When we decide a factory’s jobs are worth the price of the waste it will spew into the air and water, we make a choice of our well-being over theirs.

Like its battle against my fly, my line, my rod, my reel, the brook trout is likely to lose its battle against human activity, with one exception. We also have been busy since the 1800s at least breeding brook trout in captivity, and then stocking them in streams were we have killed off their ancestors. What’s good about that is that we’ve probably cleaned up the stream enough for brook trout to live there again. But the hatchery fish aren’t the same as the while ones. They are more docile and less adapted to the natural ecosystem.

As a state biologist explained at a lecture I attended recently, the trout in a reclaimed stream in Kentucky don’t have the chance to eat the bugs we generally associate with trout. Caddis. Mayflies. Stone flies. The rebuilt stream isn’t yet mature enough to support the insects. The stream is no place for wild trout. Flat Laurel Creek, thankfully, is.

The little brook trout was gorgeous, of course. Dotted with black and reds spots. Sleek and, for something so small, all muscle. It’s Derby Day this coming weekend, so allow me speculate that were the brook trout a horse, it would be at the gate on the first Saturday in May, ready to contend for the triple crown.

Eric took a photograph of my fish and, later, of one he caught like it, and both were returned to the stream. That was the day’s catch. It was enough.

No misery.