2020 will go down as a year to remember for sure. The way this story ends is still unknown as of the time of this writing. I am writing this in a time where nearly every state is under some type of “Stay at Home” order due to the Covid 19 Virus. Staying at home at the end of March and all through April is a very difficult task indeed, especially with nature coming back to life in full force from the long, cold winter just endured. On the last weekend just before my home state of North Carolina’s order took place, I spent a Sunday afternoon on the Blue Ridge Parkway in NW North Carolina. I visited several areas in one of my favorite places to visit, Doughton Park. I was initially scouting for the potential starting place for a hike along Lovelace Creek for a waterfall adventure. Once this was done, I stayed in the area for some photos and to just “get away” from all of the Covid 19 news that was getting more depressing as the days went on. The weather was simply spectacular on this unusually warm early spring day.
There is an overlook in Doughton Park, a short turn off the BRP, known as Wildcat Rock. Here, is a beautiful, dramatic view down into a very steep Cove with a little log cabin way down in a small clearing at the bottom. The walk from the car is short and very rewarding. The short drive from the BRP passes the Bluff Mountain Lodge, which is a small lodge that has been out of commission for nearly a decade now. Every time I visit this area, there is a sort of familiarity that had been difficult to explain.
You may notice on the sign for Wildcat Rock, was also the same sign for Fodder Stack Trail. I had never taken the time to hike this Fodder Stack Trail or even look it up to see where it went…or so I thought. After looking it up, it was a short 1.2 mile or so out and back round trip that just hugs the top of the rim and goes around the Cove. Once at the end, there was nothing really there, but the open views of the cove along the way from the different angles were spectacular. On the way back, it hit me…..
I had been here before. All the remaining memories of an incredible journey that is now 35 years past, were rushing back. It was a journey that was beautiful, fun, exciting, but also one that turned into a frightening struggle for survival with my uncle, and two cousins. Also, not to mention my aunt who decided to wait at the car for what was supposed to be a short 30 minute to 1 hour hike, that turned into an 8 hour day from hell, due to uncertainty, and fearing the worst. She and I talked about this day all the way up to her passing in 2009.
Growing up in Winston-Salem, NC, I spent a lot of time with my mother’s sister Molly, her husband Martin, and their 2 children Anthony and Brian. They lived in Lexington, NC which is a town about 20 miles south. We spent most of the time there, or at Myrtle Beach. Going to the mountains was something I did with other members of my family., but not them. This is perhaps the only memory I have of this group going to the mountains, but what a memory.
The 5 of us were riding along the BRP on a warm summer day I can remember. The adults wanted to do just that, ride and visit overlooks. However, there were 3 kids in the back, bouncing off the walls, led by me, the oldest of the three. I was used to hiking and was looking for adventure. Anthony and Brian usually followed my lead and backed me up. We wanted to hike, get out of the car….and get some fresh air. We were in the Doughton Park area, a location that I was familiar with due to spending several summers at a church camp close by, Laurel Ridge. The camp would take small groups here during the week as part of the afternoon activities. The love of mountains was already deep in my soul.
We had arrived at a very inviting area for hiking which turned out to be a crossroad for several trails that went in different directions through the large Doughton Park. The particular spot on the Parkway was the “Alligator Back”. There was a map there, we picked our destination, and off we went. It was not to be a long hike, as I had been here before with my father. Simply a short 20 minute or so hike to the top of “the Bluffs”, for a good view and back. My aunt stayed at the car, she was a heavy smoker and had absolutely no interest in hiking to the top of a mountain for a view.
We made it to the top of The Bluffs just fine. This overlook was the goal. We should have wrapped it up and headed back to the car from here. This was the initial plan after all. However, once the muscles were all loosened up on my uncle, who was 37 at this time, he decided that we would go a little further. I’m positive that us children helped to push him into this decision. He was in charge, so on we went for awhile further, on what I now know to be the Bluff Ridge Primitive Trail. The hike turned out to much longer than he anticipated. I’m only guessing here. I can not ask him at this point as he passed away in 2003. I am guessing that he sort of remembered the map and thought we would do a loop trail back to the vehicle.
We did change trails, which once we did, at least feel like we were heading back in the right direction. At this point, we were on the “Basin Creek Trail”. A lot of the details of this section of the hike have long escaped my memory, which means the miles here must have been rather uneventful. I do remember all of us getting tired and ready for this to be over. Uncle Martin already knew he was in trouble with his lady who must be livid by now. We eventually found a cabin. It was a very old and cool cabin. We had no information about it, and was was not expecting it. At this point, the 30 minute hike had to be in its 4th or 5th hour. There were no cell phones. It was Aunt Molly we were most worried about at this point. It was also getting late in the afternoon. We were even beginning to discuss staying in the cabin for the night, but we couldn’t. We had to get back to the car. We had 2 options, either go back the long, long way we had come, or keep going forward. It was so long to get back the way we came, so this is why I believe my uncle made the crucial decision to keep going. On the map above, the trail we were on, which is the Basin Creek Trail, ended at the cabin. We really were kind of close to being back, but unforgivable terrain stood in our way. It was also beginning to get dark. Fear was beginning to set in.
We were at the bottom of a very steep mountain, with tall cliffs on nearly all sides. The climb was 1000 feet as the light began to fade. The hike at this point took a noticeable turn, as the decisions that were made earlier put us where we were…..lost. It was summer and we could have easily camped and stayed anywhere. The next morning we would simply head back down the trails taken to get back, but we were going get back to my Aunt Mollie, their mother, and husband that night. It was the driving force behind Uncle Martin’s decision. Looking back, was climbing this mountain the right thing to do? I don’t know. We were still heading a direction that we had not been, not knowing where we might end up.
As best that I can remember,some sort of trail did leave the cabin that began working up the mountain. It was one of those unofficial trails. It did peter out a short ways up, and we found ourselves on a steep bushwhack from there on, hanging on to trees, roots and rocks for dear life, to simply maintain our elevation gained and not slip. About half way up, my uncle who was a heavy smoker stopped and told us he could go no further. He instructed us to leave him there and go save ourselves and send someone to get him. I can still clearly see that visual moment in mind, looking back down the mountain and watching him struggle. Us boys made the right decision I believe and just stopped climbing. There was no way that we were leaving him there. We moved up the mountain very slowly from there as we were all beat tired by this point. I also can’t remember having any water on this trip as it was never supposed to be anything but a quick hike up and back. The remaining 500 feet or so was one of the hardest things any of us have ever done in our lives.
Finally, with only the smallest amount of light left, we reached the top. There was a trail here, going left and right. I didn’t know it at the time or for another 35 years for that fact, but this was the Fodder Stack Trail. We had made it up one of the most grueling climbs I could ever imagine. Not only was there a trail there, but to the left were lights of some kind. This was where we might at least find help. I can’t remember how far we were, but my guess is that it was 1/4 mile back to the lodge on the Fodder Stack Trail. It felt so good to be on a trail, and have my uncle and cousins safely up the mountain. We made our way to the lodge, and were able to use the restroom and get water.
It was here that I over heard some Park Rangers talking. They were at the lodge getting a search and rescue team together. A man and three boys had fallen off the mountain. Those were the exact words I heard. OMG, my aunt. It had been 8 hours, and was pitch black. What must she had been thinking this entire time. How did she pass the time. I can’t even imagine….to this day. I immediately, rushed over and told them that was us. We were here and all safe. We had gotten lost and found our way here to this lodge. We were back near the Blue Ridge Parkway, but 2-3 miles northwest of where we began the hike. My uncle was so drained from this experience, that our initial focus to get back to my aunt, had become a struggle to get him up the mountain safely.
This map shows where we started, where he hiked is in yellow, and the trail ends at what is called the Caudill Cabin. We were only a short ways from the Fodder Stack Trail from the cabin but OMG, what a 1000 ft climb, that short ways on the map was. We were taken back to the location where my aunt was, who stayed there just in case we showed back up from that direction. It was a very emotional, tearful reunion to say the least. She thought that in an instant, she lost her husband, 2 kids, and her nephew, and was thinking this for hours….
As I mentioned, the mountains are deep within my soul and I visit them often. Every time I have passed by this trailhead, I thought that I believe this is where this hike happened. I just couldn’t put it all together. I though that when I saw the cabin way down below from Wildcat Rock, that was the place where we once rested before that crazy climb. But when I took the short hike down the Fodder Stack Trail, it all came back. This was the place where we completed that unforgettable summit. The lodge, sadly closed now was where we were able to get reunited with Mollie. I have discussed my findings with my 2 cousins…and a reunion hike of this trail we took and made in 1985 seems extremely unlikely as we are all in our mid to late 40s now. I however do plan to make a return hike to the Caudill Cabin via the Basin Creek Trail from the bottom. Even it will be a long hike but one that must be done in remembrance.