by Joe Prusaitis
Frozen Head State Park, TN
The snow is deeper now, covering the ground completely, hiding the last remnants of the trail, and the trail blazes. The sissy trail is now one mean bitch. You cannot assume for a moment that anything will be as you expect it. The weather and your condition changes quickly. The foliage bites, the weather stings, the light fades. My eyes hurt from the stinging debris and strain to see more. We watch our own footprints blow away. We stop many times to make certain, but finally we find our way back to the first capstone. We move through it on to the second, and then the third. Relief starts to build until I realize that we can’t find our way past the third capstone. A cliff hangs on one side, so we go around the other, but cannot find the trail. We climb all over the capstone and then circle away from the cliff with no luck. We study our map but don’t know exactly where we are. I check the compass and feel that we must continue west. We venture away from the capstone heading steeply downhill. We drop a few hundred feet but we never dropped that far while here earlier, so we turn around for fear of losing the landmark that marks something we know for certain. We don’t wish to lose it, so we go back to the capstone and the trail that stops there. Then I find it, another blaze on a tree hidden from the snow in the rocks. We climb back on and follow it carefully. Excitement builds into frozen caution. We move carefully, rigidly, like walking sticks in the silence of the screaming storm. Mentally, I check my toes and fingers for numbness or worse. We keep on and blindly walk right back to the same damn place we where an hour earlier. My heart sinks to a new low. We stand and stare at the sign: stuck in an endless loop on Chimney Top Mountain between Big Hell and Mart Field. It’s time to try something new.
I don’t know the course as well as I would like, my orienteering skills with map & compass are weak at best, my altimeter is a nice gadget that I use on few occasions, and I don’t have the right gear for snow and sub-freezing temps. Besides all that I’m having a grand time. I do wish that all my clothes weren’t wet. My hands are so cold, I can’t seem to hold my compass. My map is in a ziplock but the wet snow coats the outside whenever I try to read it. I’ve made way too many mistakes at an event that allows very few. I think I’m ready to quit now. Barkley is a hundred mile endurance running event in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. The idea is to repeat a single twenty mile loop five times. The first two loops are clockwise, the next two ccw. The final loop is another story and of little consequence to most of us, as very few people get that far. Eleven books are placed at specific locations on the course. To ensure you cover the entire course, you must pull a page from each of the books. The night before the race, you are allowed to copy the map which has the entire route, including the location of all the books. You’re also given a set of instructions describing the route. Laz lets you know what time the start is by blowing a bugle. That means the start is in one hour. The main difference between this and most other running events is that this one is not marked, it allows no pacers, and there are no aid stations. Besides all these other minor difficulties, the course sports an unbelievable amount of climb and descent, and the weather always seems to get nasty in some very unpredictable ways.
The rain starts before sunrise, pinging a tune on my car as I lay awake and listen to its soothing melody. A bugle interrupts my serene repose, chasing my wild imaginations, sending them back into the mountains to wait for me there. We start in one hour. I dress for rain and cold: two sets of gloves with waterproof covers, waterproof pants, rain jacket, Smartwool socks, and another spare set. I have food enough for a very long day: three burgers, a turkey sandwich, gingersnaps, trail mix, and gummy bears. My compass is around my neck and I’ve a map inside my pocket. Good to go, I wait. I know just enough to be a little scared. I have seen the entire route once, but I don’t know it well. Two years ago, I leached onto a veteran and followed blindly for one single complete loop. I’m concerned because I know how confusing this course is and how quickly I can get lost. Can I leach again? Do I want to? The intent of this event is that you do it completely on your own, yet most virgins suckle up to a vet at least for their first go. Hell, I did. I would like to think I could find my own way this time. I have map, compass, altimeter, foul weather clothing, plenty of food, water, an unwavering drive, and a good sense of direction … or so I think! I might be able to hang with Mike Dobies, but I’d feel much better if I could just stay ahead of him and use him as a safety net, in case it all goes to hell. So, I think I’ll run my own race this time and see what happens. It is the way it should be.
While the rain continues to fall, Laz sends us out soon after sunrise. Quiet as a funeral procession, thirty-three of us walk out of camp. We shift into packs as we make our way up Bird Mountain’s many switchbacks. Near the last switch, we drift left onto the North Boundary Trail, a mere trace. No typical trail, it twists back and forth, intent on using the steepest descents, the thickest briars, the largest falldowns, refusing even to be held within the park. Roughly following the contour of the west boundary, I see occasional yellow boundary markers nailed to large trees. Descending Bird Mountain, I miss my first of many turns, following a few others off trail. Standing there, scanning about, we see the next pack above us moving left. I scramble up and over back to the trail. I remind myself to pay attention and focus on the terrain. It’s not wise to put much faith on those in front of me. I hurl my body downward, falling, sliding, & tripping. Over, under, and through falldowns, tangled vines, saw briers, and a thick carpet of mulch deep enough to hide holes and mud slicks. Our pack of twelve hangs very loosely together, shifting order and splitting constantly, each of us making our best guess on route finding when no trail exists. A very specific falldown is recognized, pointing to the northwest boundary marker, and I’m surprised by the accuracy of this inane call. A stone cairn wraps around a four foot tall steel post. Book#1 (Trail of Secrets) sits inside. All of us gather round it to collect our first page. Less than three miles in and it has taken awhile to get here.Some take time to eat, others get water from the creek, but the pack never stops moving. We cross Phillips Creek and start the next climb. This section has more falldowns and tangled vines than the last one. There is no easy way, or obvious choice. We struggle over rough terrain as each sees fit. We pass a Jury Ridge sign that I’m told is on the wrong ridge. It seems to make sense here! We descend a bit before rising again, using the hill’s contour to stay as high as possible. The trail comes and goes, but our pack remains together. In single file for minutes, then scrambled and queued up again. I don’t realize we’re on Bald Knob until chaos scatters us completely. Littered with downed trees and large branches, a few new dirt roads crisscross everything. I was warned about this, but I’m not making the connection immediately when our pack splits apart at the seams. I know better, but absently follow a couple of vets anyway. I stay on their tail as they and I completely circle Bald Knob. More educated by the end of this roundabout, as are the others, we drop down lower this time and bushwhack until the four of us are back on the trail again. We find Son of a Bitch Ditch and ford it with the help of some half fallen trees. We’re reunited with all the others at the strip mines. They’ve gathered right next to the brackish water, trying to decide which way to go. As we arrive, they scatter in multiple directions looking for the best way up to the Garden Spot. My instinct is to go strait up the face on our right but once again I follow blindly. You’d think I’d learn by now. Drifting along the nasty off colored creek, I spot someone up high and right. This spurs me across the putrid pool and up the other side. I head for the spot and a few others do the same. Climbing slowly up the steep slope, I intersect the trail I seek, and then switchback the remainder of the way to the jeep road on top. On road, I turn right and run a hundred yards. Another dirt road takes a sharp left, leading up to the Garden Spot, where we find everybody else surrounding Book#2 (A Walk on the Wild Side). Looks like I took the long way up. So far, I’m not too pleased with my decision making. It has taken me about four hours to cover eight miles.
The next section leads over Stallion Mountain. It’s required that we first go down to Coffin Springs and then reverse to climb back up the same way. I don’t need the water, so I turn upon arrival and head back
up. My partners stop for water but catch me back up before I get back to the turn. We turn at the split and start down the road when we realize the ridge is on our right, so we back up thirty yards, go off road, and
ride the ridgeline going up. It levels out on top and we continue ’til we find the triple and quad fork trees, with Book#3 (Shadowland)
On across the ridge heading down, we intersect a dirt road and go left on it, then right, and then a switchback, until we decide to get off. Dirt roads crisscross the entire area and I’m thinking it is best we just avoid all of them and go strait. I have fallen in step with the pack and I’m beginning to think it’s time for me to split ways. I’m following more than I should and not going the way I think is best. We give up on the road and find cliffs immediately. We find a way down between them, and then again down another level through briars to the old Coal Road. Minutes later, we cross the Barley Mouth Branch on the old Coal Road and quickly to Cougar Rock. Between a rock and a hard place, we find Book#4 (Moment of Truth) on the back side of Cougar Rock. I move quickly to the ledge and start down Leonard’s Butt Slide. I can see that Robert has gone over as well, and I follow his track, speeding down the steep chute. When the slide stops, we don’t, losing the others as we sprint through the trees and rocks. A large boulder on the right is our landmark just above the New River and Barley Mouth junction. We turn left, following the river. We pass the old rusted marker of a bygone book no longer used. Robert mentions it and keeps moving. On trail now, we climb a small hump and pass above a hundred foot sheer drop down to the river. Robert peels his jacket just before we cross the river on the old railroad bed. On the other side of the river, we pass a rock wall with a frying pan on top. Robert does not know this book location and stops, so I go past him and turn up hill to a tree wrapped in duck tape a hundred yards up the hill. Book#5 sits in a nook of the tree. We’re in Little Hell.
We sit and eat on a very steep slope. Some of the others find us, but we start up again before the entire troop joins us. Little Hell sorts us all now according to our climbing ability. Robert disappears ahead, while I begin to fade. Two others pass me, then three more. I check behind, but no others are in sight. Little Hell has just undone what twelve of us had held together for so long. The entire group has just been scattered. Robert, DeWayne, and three others continue to move further and further ahead, while I lose distance on them. Mike Bur is the only one within sight. Mike and I eventually hook up and finish the climb together, following a zigzag path through the maze known as Saw Briar Point. Just below the cusp of the dirt road is Book#6. ‘It’s Not a Pretty Sight’.
We’re now on our own. There’s not another soul in sight. We follow the road leading down for awhile and then a quick switchback on itself to the right. This leads to the guard tower. A group of four is just starting up Rat Jaw. We wave and then walk over to the guard tower surrounded by a ten foot tall barbwire fence. Mike crawls under the fence to get Book#7 ‘The Green Stick’ from the cinderblock wall of the building.
I put on clean socks before walking back over and starting up Rat Jaw. Its one steep and mean power line cut that boasts the nastiest patch of saw briars on the mountain. They usually wrap around your body and legs, clinging, scraping, and cutting. We’re lucky today. Somebody’s cut them down. We start very slow and get slower. Every time my hands near the ground, they come back bleeding. Everything under foot cuts. The briars have been trimmed down, but the stumps & pieces are still deadly as hell. I try hard to stay upright on this very steep slope, plucking a branch and peeling the limbs for a walking stick. We reach level after level with steep climb in between. Frozen Head State Park has a prison on either side, and we have a very good view of the maximum security unit strait down below us right now. Some fog starts to roll in, but the climb continues and we find the large rock wall in the fog. We go to the right and pass a slot, and then I call Mike back. We have to go up the slot to stay out of the trees and remain on the power line cut. We continue endlessly up it seems, and very slow. On the final pitch, we see some hikers on top at the road just under the weather tower. My Camelbak has just run dry, so once on top, I refill it while I eat a hamburger. Back down the road we had just come up, we pass by the top of Rat Jaw. It’s filled with fog. We find the trail that leads left and back to Indian Knob almost a super highway of trails. Many trails lead off in different direction from here, a switching station of sorts for hikers. We make good time on the Chimney Top Trail until we find the red MF rock. Steep walls are on the right, so we back up fifty yards and start up a much gentler slope. The climb’s not too bad. We rise up until we find the ridge, scrambling through thick brush and rock until we find the flat top and Book#8. It seems too easy.
Continuing over the hump into the saddle we find a way around the mass of briars and over the next hump before dropping down. But, I badly overshoot the Chimney Top Trail, crossing right over it, and keep going
down. We drop five-hundred feet before Mike realizes our mistake. Altitude alone tells the sad tale and now we need to climb back up. We’re five-hundred feet down and can see the Indian Head rock off through the trees southwest of us, so we move up and right. We see & hear some folks moving down hill quickly from the landmark. Now that we know where we are, we easily find our way up to the Indian Head. A trail leads over to the keyhole slot through the rock at Indian Knob and Book #9 ‘A Second Sunrise’.
We’re standing on the edge of Zip Line, ready to drop down when Mike Dobies, Craig Wilson, and John DeWalt show up. The lot of these guys has more fun run finishes than the rest of the troop here today. It looks like we have a free ride back in with the Barkley tour guides. Mike & I look at each other once and nod, like saying ‘Oh what the hell’. We step over the edge and blow down Zip Line in rapid fashion. We could have waited. We should have waited. On the way down, I tell Mike that the next section is more confusing to me than most of the others. I don’t feel very comfortable about it, but both of us keep going. We drop down quickly, veering left. The loud sound of water is in front of us and we head for it. Mike leads us down the final pitch to the waterfall, and we cross just above it. A trail on the other side leads downstream. Hugging the west shore, we keep on ’til the trail crosses the stream, leading a bit away from the stream. We go a hundred yards then turn into the trees, finding a hollow that fits the map. Mike thinks the hill on the left of the hollow has to be it. But it doesn’t look right to me. Mike starts up it anyway. I can’t convince him because I don’t know for certain, but it just doesn’t feel right. He comes back off the hill and we decide to go back and start over again at the stream crossing. We don’t cross the creek this time but follow the far shore. Minutes later, we’re at the base of Big Hell at the inlet of Beech Fork hollow. A hundred yards up trail is Book#10 (The Overmountain Men)
We take a short break to eat and then on up we go. I am certain the Barkley tour group is now in front of us and our security is now gone. Workmanlike, we plug away and make good time, ’til we can see the capstones on top and the tour group also. It’s a short ride from here but still slow work. By the time we make the last hundred feet, they’re gone. We sit down and pull the pages from Book#11 (The End of the Road), the last book, only three miles from done.
This should be the end of the tale, but this is where Barkley steps in and kicks us in the ass. It’s an easy ride down a sissy trail to camp from here. Worn out from the climb, socks wet, clothes damp, I go round the right side of the capstone, on autopilot now, I take out my last bag of food and eat the sugar loaded gummy bears. Neither of us checks map, compass, or altimeter. Laziness born of exhaustion and fat confidence. We’re almost done and know it. I’ve been here before and it’s a brainless easy ride in. Not much different than driving home drunk, not knowing how you get there, but your body seems to know the way. As the sky slips into darkness and it starts sleeting, we hurry to escape the storm: thinking of warm showers, warm clothes, warm food, and cold beer. Should be a respectable time for a couple of rookies. But, somewhere in here we begin our wrong way trek. We go through a few more capstones as it gets much darker. I stop to get my lights out and pull the waterproof shells over my already wet gloves. The wind is howling, slinging frozen rain into my face. The night sky is filled with debris that stings, forcing my head down and my eyes barely slit open. There are no landmarks to discern, the terrain blurred to twenty feet. For awhile we follow the blazes marked on the trees, and then they too are covered in snow. Eventually we reach a landmark that makes my heart sink right down to my toes. We are at Mart Fields. My wonderful ignorant bliss evaporates instantly. A cloud fills my head and I begin to scream inaudibly. We have gone the wrong way, and it is a long way the wrong way. I can hardly believe it. I tell Mike and that’s when we finally take out the map. We simply turn around and start back.
The snow is deeper now, covering everything. We’re forced to go real slow, searching the trees and ground for sign. Everything aches. A sensory overload: cold, wet, sore, numb. A mentally numbing sensation overwhelms me. I can’t be here. I’ll wake up soon. I try to look up but it hurts my eyes, so I glance up now and then. Back along the trail, we walk. To the capstones and past, but eventually we lose the trail in the rocks. We circle round and find it again. And then we’re staring at the same damned sign again back at Mart Fields. We’re stuck in an endless loop, a dead zone, going round and round. Mike breaks the silence, ‘We ain’t going back that way again’. How can I argue? We’ve gone in circles so far. Stuck on Chimney Top between Big Hell and Mart Field. It’s time to try something new.
We keep going the same direction on up to the next intersection. We stop and study our map. It’s not clear exactly where we are. Two trails lead off, both in wrong directions. West: a wide super trail. East: much less, a trace. I start down the super trail, climbing a very large falldown. Five minutes into it, we realize it’s still heading west. The wrong way? There is no west trail. What is this? We go back to the intersection and try the other. Minutes later, it disappears. This trail leads to the prison and only the prison. We go back and try the wide super trail gain, leading west. This should be the right trail leading back to Spicewood, but we really have no verification. Everything feels right and yet it feels wrong. We keep going for awhile, riding the nice wide track until finally a landmark, the red MF stone. We are exactly
where we need to be, but still a long ways from home. At the intersection of Spicewood Trail, we stop again to discuss options. Mike wants to take it, seeing it is the shortest way home, but I recall that the South Old Mac trail was the easy way down and want to go on up to it. Not being overly confident about anything right now, I follow Mike’s lead and head down Spicewood Trail with ignorance & hope, following purple blazes. We’re lower down now and more protected, so you can see the blazes again. It tilts decidedly downward, looks right and feels right, but that’s how we got into this trouble to begin with. Halfway down, we finally lose the snow and then my light goes out. I have a spare LED headlamp but neither of us have our best lights. We had both saved those for the second loop in the dark. These were just emergency lights with no plans to be of excessive use. Out of the snow, I finally start to warm up. We’re finally out of the wind and snow. We can hear each other again and talk of things outside of this madness. It is after all just a walk in the woods. We pass the Spicewood campsite and know for certain that we are on track and almost done. Tension falls off my bones and goes searching for somebody else who is still out there wandering in the snow. I’m free of it finally and relax. We find the intersection of South Old Mac trail and then the road. We walk back into camp fifteen hours after we started. They blow taps twice on the horn, tapping Mike & I out of the race, and then twice again for two others who have just come in from another direction. For the first time, it does not sound so sad.