It’s not often that 12 year olds spend their summers wandering mountains with grown men, removed from any contact with their parents, family, or friends. But I was not a typical 12 year old. I attended an all-boys camp in western NC and grew to love hiking, one of the activities that we could do. That summer we decided to hike the Art Loeb Trail, a 30-mile hike in Pisgah National Forest not too far from camp. In the hiking community, the Art Loeb Trail is considered one of the hardest three-day hikes on the east coast. The Art Loeb Challenge, mirroring the run of a marathon, up and down 6,000-feet five times, was rarely completed. We planned to complete it in under 24 hours.
The night before the hike was a lengthy and sleepless one. We left our camp at midnight and drove an hour to the trail head. It was pitch black, illuminated only by the dim glow of our headlights. The daunting hike launched straight up, farther than the eye could see, with a 6,000 foot incline on unstable ground. Thirty minutes into our climb, it started pouring rain, Pisgah Forest was just like a rain forest. The entire climb I questioned myself as to why I would do this, and what would happen if I were to just turn back now. But still, I trekked on.
When we reached the peak of the first mountain, we were welcomed by an endless blanket of clouds. Our headlamps were deemed useless unless something was right in front of us. We strained our necks to take one last look at the world below us and the mountain we had conquered. We started our descent. We moved hastily, and walking downhill it is imperative that you move fast in order to make up for any time you lost going up. We were basically falling down, using all of our might to kick our legs out in front of us. We enjoyed this race, as going down hill is a reward for all the steep miles of this trail. When we got to the bottom we took our first water break. In order to use our time wisely and not waste it on breaks, as well as to get out of the pouring rain, we timed them and quickly moved forward. We said goodbye to the flat ground comforting our feet and started our ascent up the second mountain.
When we got to the top, we were relieved to see our first signs of bright light. We had only been hiking for a couple of hours, yet it was already a taxing job, as hiking itself is not the joy we sought. Our excitement and pride came from the reward of climbing something larger than ourselves, conquering something older than life itself, and the beauty of seeing for miles and miles once we reached a peak. This satisfaction of feeling like you can see forever was one of the things that drew me to hiking. During the Art Lobe Challenge, I felt like the mountains consumed my entire aching body, there was barely any time to look and see what we had achieved, as everything began to blur together.
Eventually, we made it to Black Mountain, the halfway point. It was about 3:00 in the afternoon when we started our hike up the tallest and steepest mountain on the trail. We were behind on time, so we decided to run up it, our backs soaked from the pounding of raindrops mixing with our sweat.
Half way up Black Mountain I heard the loudest noise I had ever experienced, and a split second later a light flashed right before our group. Everyone fell over and I could not see anything for a good two minutes, my eyes haunted with white spots of light were clouded and misty. When I regained my senses I realized that lighting had just struck 10-feet from me. To describe the panic and confusion I was dealing with at that moment is impossible. I still have night terrors about the time I was almost struck by lightning. After the lightning stopped we eventually made it down Black Mountain and finally completed the hike with about an hour and a half left to spare. After the lightning I don’t remember much about the hike. My brain was on autopilot with one goal, get home safe.
Throughout the trials of the hike I had fainted due to the lack of water. My feet were cut with blisters around my entire foot. Chafing caused my inner thighs to bleed. I had bruises on my back from my pack. Looking back on this trip I do not know how I managed to complete it. I was only 12 and I had just completed a challenge that some of the most experienced backpackers will not attempt.
When I completed the hike I felt like a hero doing something that not even grown men can accomplish. A rush of adrenalin flowed through my body and I felt empowered. I thought for sure I was going to be on the news or talked about on blog posts. But much to my young dismay, when I got home there was nothing, no congratulations or praise, for no one else could have possibly known the extent of what I had just done. But I knew, and that was all I needed. I had risked my life doing something I loved, I completed a task that is almost impossible. I was not even a teenager yet.
The trip was one of the most humbling experiences in my life. This trip solidified my love for backpacking and being outdoors because if I was willing to almost die for it then my love for it had to be strong and impenetrable. The very next summer I went to Colorado with the same group of people and hiked the entire Colorado trail. As I grew, so did my love for hiking. I owe it all to the cold, painful, and rainy trails of the Art Loeb.
Submitted to the Gleaner 2020-2021 by John Sprinkle