Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dog Loser Knob

We sat, perched atop a slab of solid quartz, Dan Wax and I, munching on granola and trail mix, drinking in the in the panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sky was cloudless and deep blue and the visibility was forever. By noon, the sun was a bright yellow disc high in the Southwestern sky. “The Shining Rock”, an outcropping of white quartz, formed the face of one of the mountain peaks in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. The irregular, jagged shape of the boulders made them easy to climb and the view from the summit was – there’s no other word - breathtaking. To the Northwest was Cold Mountain. I am told it was the basis of a book and later a movie. To the South was the Blue Ridge Parkway where cars moved along like ants in a conga line. The Parkway had been cut across the very top of the Appalachian mountain ridges and paved by CCP workers in the Great Depression era. From our perch we could see a good 30 mile stretch of the serpentine two-lane blacktop road. Farther off in the valley, lay the mountain town of Greenville with it’s sister city, Spartanburg.
We finished off our high-energy lunch with a last swig from our canteens and then began the descent to our campsite below. We had chosen a flat area beside the trail to set up our three-man tent which we shared. We had learned by experience that the two-man tents were for very small men. When we reached our campsite, we looked at our watches and calculated that we had about three hours of daylight left. We began combing a nearby copse of trees for dead limbs and dry brush. October has a fickle thermostat, exaggerated by the mountains. We had shed our wool shirts and were down to our tee shirts. This was work! It would have been easier to take Dan’s hatchet and chop down a tree for our campfire that night. But we didn’t do that for two reasons: (1) All the instructions for wilderness camping say to leave growing things alone. Don’t even pick the flowers! (2) Starting a fire with green firewood is next to impossible. But before long, we had a large stash of small limbs and some large logs for later when the fire was big enough.
As the sun went down, so did the temperature, dropping 30 degrees in one hour. Campfires warm the side of your body that is facing the blaze. If you are facing it, your front is toasty warm while your back freezes. So, we alternated sides like human rotisseries, to stay warm.
“This must be what it’s like on the surface of the moon”, I said, taking another swig of our “medicinal purposes” brandy.

We dragged a large log and rolled it into our fire. Sparks rose 50 feet into the night and we worried we would set our tent ablaze, but our fears were unfounded. We drank hot chocolate and waited for our propane stoves to cook dehydrated potatoes and dehydrated beef stroganoff. We talked until our fire dwindled to brightly glowing embers and decided it was time for bed.

The moon, in its waning phase, was just beginning to make its debut and the stars, having no competition, appeared as tiny spotlights of varying sizes against a black velvet curtain. We could pick out Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the two constellations that shared ownership of the North Star, and Orion was barely visible on the southern horizon. Braving the sub-freezing temperatures we quickly stripped down to our underwear and crawled into our sleeping bags and were warm within minutes. This was our second night of undisturbed by a ringing telephone or any sound not produced by nature. I was getting used to it and I imagined what it would be like to live this way, in the wild, relying only on one’s skills as a hunter for food and just living off the land. Somewhere in mid-thought the daydream became a night dream and I drifted into unconsciousness. We slept the peaceful sleep of far away and out of reach

The next morning we awoke to 15 degrees and convinced ourselves against our will to exit the comfort of our cocoons and put on our stiff jeans for another day. Dan had had the bright idea to put his clothes inside his sleeping bag but he didn’t share it with me, so my dressing was considerably more uncomfortable than his.

Dog Loser Knob was so named because of a grove of dwarf magnolias that grew on the top of this wind-swept peak. The tops of the trees formed a thick canopy maze. I wondered… Who had named this place? Had some cartographer lost his dog up here? On the south end of the grove was a large flat grassy area, which made the perfect camping spot for our final night in the woods. We pitched our tent and gathered firewood again. In the last hour of daylight, our fire ablaze, we ate a freeze dried something that tasted like hamburger helper. It was another crystal clear night.

The next morning, our last day in the wilderness, we dismantled our tent, strapped on our noticeably lighter backpacks and headed down the trail and back to civilization. I have heard it said that deprivation is the soul of appreciation. After four days of playing Daniel Boone, a hot shower and a soft, comfortable bed never felt so good. But a part of me still yearns for the quiet, open air. I would visit Shining Rock two more times, once with my son when he was 16 and again with my daughter when she was 12. But I have not, at least to this point, been back to Dog Loser Knob.

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