A Caretaker Returns

Looking down at my feet, I can’t help but wonder where they’ve taken me - where they’ll soon take me again. Like a smooth long run in the mountains, the days of summer seemed to slip away with the miles; and like any run in the mountains, the outcomes were planned but uncertain. Walking down from Mt. LeConte in March, I had my sights focused on all things Nantahala; good work would get done there. I jogged along that path for much of the summer. August brought a whole new destination into view, and with it a whole new host of adventures. Looking up, I see that it is time for things to come full circle. It is time for another winter on Mt. LeConte. 

After resigning my duties as caretaker of the LeConte Lodge. I found solace in the fact that I didn’t have to leave the wilderness, yet. A short migration took me south to the Nantahala region of the Appalachian Mountains. Why Nantahala? My brother, Steven, and his family purchased a home and five acres in the area last August. I was fortunate enough to be in a position to buy-in on one acre for my own home. The plan was to build an off-grid home bordering the Nantahala National Forest. It wasn’t originally supposed to be a drawn out process but good things happen in life - more on that later. One of my goals with building a home was to source as many of the materials as I could from the land. Finding the material wouldn’t be hard, thanks to the abundance of wood and stone scattered across the mountainous five acres. Gathering the material was a whole different story.

Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, I hauled stone up the mountain to the base of a 20ft x 30ft block building at the top of the property. I would cover the block building with field stone and then build a wooden structure on top from milled lumber from the property. What I hoped to build wasn’t much different from my childhood fort-building dreams. These thoughts reassured me that I was moving in the right direction. I developed a working relationship with each stone I picked up and with every board I milled.

After a bout of early summer trail-magic along the Appalachian Trail, my partner (Leah) and I decided that we couldn’t miss out on the thru-hiking fun. We decided to hike the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail. The SALT is a 370 mile loop connecting sections of the Appalachian Trail, Bartram Trail, Southern Foothills Trail, Art Loeb Trail, and Mountains-to-Sea Trail. In short, the SALT was a challenging 17 day adventure through the Southern Appalachians. Just what the doctor ordered!

I wrote a three-piece blog post about the journey( one, two, three). If you’re curious about a different perspective, read about the SALT on Leah’s blog. Strapped for time, checkout Leah’s article she had published in the Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.

In case your wondering, trail-magic is essentially a mini holiday celebration for thru-hikers on their way north to Maine. You get together as many friends and as much food as you can. You then setup a base camp at a trail/road junction somewhere along the trail - then you wait for hikers. The goal is to pamper each and every hiker as much as you can. Whatever they need, you try to provide. It is one of many ways that the thru-hiking community gives back to the trail that has gave so much to them.

Shortly after arriving in Nantahala, Leah and I already started discussing where we would have to be in the fall. Leah was opening a new chapter in her story - becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). I don’t believe relationships work unless there is a strong willingness to move, grow and compromise from both ends of the relationship. Knowing this, I agreed to go wherever Leah got into school, putting my Nantahala plans on the back burner - better yet, in the cupboard.

Leah had soon been accepted into a couple schools and had to make a choice. Which direction do we go? West to Montana or northeast to Vermont. Both options offered good physical therapy programs, along with the prerequisite mountains we desired. Montana won the decision. A road-trip was brewing.

In early August, Leah and I began, what would end being a ten-day trip, moving west. Our goals where to maximize time outdoors as we traversed the country. Not afraid to go out of the way and not happy with too much time in the car, we accomplished our goal to really ’see’ the country on the road trip. 

In Montana, we quickly became accustomed to some of the nearby outdoor escapes, including the Rattlesnake Wilderness, the Mission Range, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and Glacier National Park. Within the first week, I was able to land a job working at a French and Italian bakery. The novice baking skills I had picked up working at the White Mountain Huts were paying off. My short time baking at Le Petit Outre was fun, educational, and challenging. Every day we baked bread for 70 different locations. The scale of the operation was large, but not overly automated. I worked with a awesome group of like-minded folks who appreciated hard-work and good bread. Can’t argue with that!

It’s no secret that I love to run in the mountains. In fact, my ability to run in the mountains helps govern many of my decisions. Most of my running is done alone, in the woods. The act of simply moving through the mountains has become a meditative process for me; but every once in a while, I need to go celebrate the sport of long-distance running with others. I need to race. I signed up for two races this year. Correction, I signed up for one race this year - the other, I signed up for on New Year’s Eve last year. 

The first celebration, as I like to call them, would be the Hootenanny 100k in Lolo, Montana. The second would be the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama, a month later. I won’t bore you with the finer details of shoving food in my mouth, chugging rice milk and stumbling in the dark at 3:00AM. I’ll suffice to say that both races were amazing experiences, and that I accomplished my goal at each race, to finish. I’ve listed my finish times and place below.

Hootenanny 100k - 1st Finisher - 10:42:11 - Oct. 7th 

Pinhoti 100 mile - 22nd Finisher - 22:15:43 - Nov. 3rd 

Now, winter is nipping at my heels and Mt. LeConte is calling me home. I’ve heard the call, packed my gear and readied the camera. My friends always assumed that once I went west I would never return - I’ve been going out west for years. Time and time again I find my way to the east, back to the Appalachian Mountains. Where will I end up in the long run? Who knows. I like it that way. Knowing exactly how the story goes is never as good as learning along the way.

Winter is coming - I’ll be found on Mt. LeConte.



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