Encompassing the Great Smokey, Cherokee, Chattahoochee and Nantahala forests and parks, and boasting arguably one of the finest sections along the Appalachian Trail, as well as the Mountain to Sea Trail, the innumerate choices confronting outdoor enthusiasts is pleasantly confounding and seemingly endless.
We eventually decided to hike Pisgah because the township of Asheville, where we planned to combine a visit during our Pisgah Weekender is encrusted in a quaint, if not smug spot right in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest and panoramic Blue Ridge Parkway.
The decision was also helped by my firm and longstanding (if not somewhat cavalier) disposition to hiking in the mountains – and that is the mountains are completely undiscerning to one’s discernment of where to go, because everywhere and every experience in the mountains fundamentally is rewarding.
What follows are a few tips and recommendations gleaned from our Pisgah Weekender.
#01: When hiking in bear country at the start of fall check the state’s National Park Service website for forest alert
On the four hour drive from the South Carolina coast to the Pisgah National Forest my girlfriend’s burgeoning phobia of bears (encouraged by a goodbye warning from her mother) fermented like kombucha. As an interesting aside, and to indulge possibly my favourite facet of the English language, phobias and neuroses, I just searched for the correct term for bearphobia and guess what?
I’m not sure if a fear of bears is so intrinsic and reasonable it can’t by definition be classified a phobia. But all I found on the internet was forums on the topic arguing over the Greek word for bear to legitimise the most correct description – arktos or ursus. Yet all agreed there is no established term, and an irrational fear of bears (ignoring a tenuous oxymoron) is most commonly and lamely referred to as bearpobia.
In any case I met my girlfriend’s growing concerns of the wild with true Australian character and spirit and took the piss till it was possibly way beyond funny. And if I wasn’t Australian this behaviour may have been considered somewhat regrettable by the warning notice that greeted us when we arrived at the Pisgah Ranger Station seeking additional information on hiking trails.
Forest Service Closes Shining Rock and Graveyard Fields to Camping
Pisgah Forest, N.C. — The U.S. Forest Service is closing the Shining Rock Wilderness and Graveyard Fields areas to overnight camping because of ongoing bear encounters with humans.
The areas will be closed to dispersed camping until further notice. The agency will monitor conditions to determine when it is safe to reopen the areas.
On Monday night, a bear damaged a tent and food bag. Two people were in the tent at the time of the encounter, but no injuries were sustained. The encounter is the latest in a series of bear encounters in recent weeks.
Questions regarding the camping closure can be directed to the Pisgah Ranger District, 828-877-3265.
The alert notice ostensibly declared the entire region of Pisgah National Forest north of the Blue Ridge Parkway closed. This included Shinning Rock, where we intended to go due to its premier status for intrepid hikes and multiday treks.
The station ranger later explained the annual yield of wild berries in the region had been poor – so much so that folk who forayed each year into the forests to take berries away from the bears had even visited the Pisgah Ranger Station to complain, which made me laugh, and in turn made the ranger laugh.
In any event the bears hadn’t got enough wild berries, and were hungry, and tired and irritable. I wondered what calibre of physical enforcement by the Ranger Service supported such a sweeping closure – not that it mattered because there was no way now my girlfriend was going to venture further than a falsetto fractured scream away from the safety of her Subaru Forrester.
When I realised the alert notice was backdated by more than two weeks I wished I had visited the National Forest Service website for North Carolina before we left. But I also conceded this was an innocent oversight due to the engrossing research and deliberation required in actually deciding where we were going to go.
#02: When utlising National Forest’s Roadside Camping facilities take time to scout out a favourable campground & claim it early!
Although I was eager to stretch my legs on back country trails, and feel the deep satisfying burn on a multiday hike, the pleasant consequence was we were still in Pisgah National Forest – and I reverted to my basic precept when embarking on hiking adventures:
Any hiking is good hiking
Plus I wasn’t going to become some tortured and perplexing mincer for Werner Hertzog to take the posthumous piss out of me in a feature length documentary.
Despite the station ranger stressing repeatedly and exhaustively without nuance that we were not safe from bear encounters no matter where we were in the Pisgah National Forest, the immediate district surrounding the Pisgah Ranger Station was still accessible and open to the public. And along with rewarding day hikes and scenic waterfalls an unprecedented feature of National Forest Services such as Pisgah is the availability of roadside camping facilities.
It was somewhat disappointing to see we missed the bravura of seasonal colour and flair commonly found in tourist brochures, postcards and calendars. But in its place the views of Pisgah were like soporific post-party embers, and surprisingly chaste and elegant – undulating hillocks of ashen lichen kindled with sporadic bursts of port and sorrel and the occasional flame tree that stretched to a yawn where a lead blue haze joined an uncertain sky.
And the exquisite quietude of dormancy snaked down into the back country ravines and sleepy streams that we now found ourselves traversing with new found focus and vigour. With an easy-to-follow photocopy of roadsides campsite from the station ranger, exploring the multitude of scenic service roads now had the added purpose and reward of scouting for a favourable night’s camp.
Roadside camping in the Pisgah Ranger District operates on a first come – first serve directive, with each occupant allowed a fortnightly maximum stay. Each numbered roadside campsite comes complete with a decking, fire pit and lantern hooks – and many of them are positioned idyllically besides running water. And while it is hard to say any campsite is undesirable, some are definitely more favourable than others in regards to location and solitude.
Despite news of snowfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway, bear alerts and near freezing overnight forecasts we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the low season. I could only imagine the sorts of difficulties and frustrations accommodating the swell of traffic in the summer season.
We fortunately found perfect campsites both nights insulated by Pisgah serenity with a soundtrack of softly gurgling water. And while we found searching for a roadside camp site a great excuse to explore the district and insufflate the scenery I advise people not to leave it too late (at least in low season) and try make claim on a spot by pitching a tent no later than mid afternoon.
#03: Smores – The gluten-free vegan mascot?
Maybe it’s because of Australia’s rustic, penal background that we are satisfied so easily around campfires. We spice unleavened lumps of dough with raisins and choc drops, throw it in the fire, and call it damper.
We pull it out when it resembles coal, peel away the inedible crust like rock salt and pick out the warm gooey melted chocolate bits with sumptuous delight. We then discard the rest of the damper and crust like a carcass, and head to bed hugging distended stomachs inflicted with cramps, as if we’d consumed a pint of instant pancake batter. And when we can’t be arsed with damper we simply roast marshmallows on sticks with little finesse.
Some of us are Flamers, preferring them to catch fire. We wave them madly in the night sky going “Ooooooh” like they’re poor man’s sparkler, hearing the animal fat pop and sizzle briefly before consuming them – while the Anti-Flamer faction would complain the integrity of the marshmallow has been ruined, preferring to roast them fastidiously on slow burning embers, to which the Flamers openly encouraged as they consume marshmallows at three times the rate.
In North America it’s hardly surprising there is a more zealous and contentious campfire ritual called S’mores – and for good reason!
They are the emotional, spiritual and gastronomic lifeblood of sedate outdoor adventuring in North America, and precipitate puritanical and endless debate (as it should) around the same said campfires as to the precise preparation and process to produce the perfect s’more.
This is not an appropriate platform, and I’m not even slightly qualified, possessing neither sweet tooth nor concern enough to discuss the abstruse intricacies of creating a flawless s’more.
I will say that due to emergent allergies I have recently witnessed my girlfriend adopt a gluten-free diet, as well as make a contentious transition from being vegetarian to strict vegan. And by incorporating her equally tenacious passion for baking I have seen her toil with all sorts of vegan voodoo – from apples sauce and ground flax seed, to pumpkin puree and recyclable almond mulch, turgid and strained after being milked through cheese cloth, all from limited to commendable success.
So when we made an early morning stop at Greenlife Grocery, while passing through Asheville on the way to Pisgah Ranger Station my girlfriend capitulated to buying vegan, gluten-free s’mores ingredients. Her announcement was gilded in chagrin that the Dannies marshmallows, Smoreables Graham style crackers and Wholefoods branded dark chocolate cost five times more (although I think she was possibly exaggerating to make a point – no harm in that) than gluten non-vegan s’mores. Was I overwhelmed?
No. But I should have been!
Again, I will refrain from describing what North Americans already know too well to be a transcendental end to a campfire dinner and divine accompaniment to a breakfast brew. But to give respect to the vegan movement, and ingratiate the ambit of dietaries sensitivities no matter what your personal ilk, heed my advice and stop at Greenlife Grocery if heading to Pisgah and pick up their costly vegan and gluten-free s’mores ingredients.
#04: Hotel Coupon Booklets!
After two nights roughing it on quinoa pasta and sardines, Amy’s tofu and black bean chilli, and Tasty Bites channa marsala and Punjab eggplant, and reeking pleasantly of campfire smoke we acquiesced to Pisgah’s growing inclemency. We had run out of s’more for which I was largely not responsible, so we agreed to spending no more than forty dollars on hotel room (less we sleep in the car) and get a comfortable night’s sleep to make the most of the following day, which we intended to spend exploring Asheville.
What follows is my most pertinent recommendation for cross country travel across North America, not just to Pisgah and North Carolina – make sure you pick up and travel with hotel coupon booklets.
From past experience travelling in North America I was confident hotel rooms offering basic fixings of HBO, fridge and free Wi-Fi could be easily found as low as thirty dollars. This primarily resides throughout the indiscriminate cheap motel and hotel chains populating the vast arterial network of interstate junctions. But the USA (like anywhere really) is also a land of contradictions – and despite profound examples of modernisation it remains stubbornly bureaucratic and pedantic in many of its traditions and methods, such as the DMV and discount coupons. So I also knew these rock bottom hotel rates often required coupon discounts sourced from booklets found at magazine stands outside rest stops and gas stations.
I can now also categorically state as a result of my most recent Pisgah Weekender, and the Blue Ridge Parkway closure on Sunday morning due to some retarded cross country marathon (which forced a detour through sleepy Brevard, and unassuming Hendersonville to get back on the I26) that hotel coupon magazines can only be found at gas station and rest stops along the interstate.
However, the tradition of discount coupons has amalgamated effortless with the digital and paperless realm of cyberspace. So you can also find discount coupons at ease through a myriad of sites before you embark on your next overland adventure. Listed below are two of many established coupon sites:
Success as with coupons is eventually found either through compromise, or tenacity or both – and armed with a $33.88 coupon for the Asheville Rodeway Inn we found ourselves in a room replete with minibar fridge, Wi-Fi, HBO, a nearby ice machine (which regardless of usage gives me solace) and a convenient back entry tainted with stale smoke.
#05: Asheville Recommendations!
Asheville is a vibrant mountain town, historically notable as the birthplace of Thomas Woolfe, grandmaster of the autobiographical novel who illuminates his anecdotal memory of Asheville in his seminal work (and one of my favourite books) O Angel Where Art Thou. But with the stoic and desperate vicissitudes of the Great Depression attenuated to the words and images on pages between book covers Asheville is now increasingly recognised for its denizens of creative, alternative and destitute merit.
Beyond the rather blatant bohemian veneer of beanies and beards, verdigris jewellery, vagabonds with guitar cases, and gluten-free veganism there is serious business from creative industries, tourism, and quality local sourced produce.
And Asheville is endearing not just for the characters, coops, and superlative artwork.
It exudes a relaxed lassie faire atmosphere of synergy and liberty – evidenced by the plethora of lively venues, which rather than implicitly segregate the coffee junkie, teetotaller and live cultured kombucha drinker from the artisan beer aficionado or wine lover; choose instead to promote integration and harmony by offering eclectic choices and diverse menu options to satisfy all day and night and compliment a session of stimulating confab. (I mean, where else do you get kombucha on tap? Seriously, you tell me – cos I don’t know, and although it causes an inherent conflict in me since a pint cost the same as beer, it’s fukn delicious!)
Given Asheville is a hot little bindi on the tourist map of the United States, and complimented by its small, and easily accessible city centre, I don’t feel this is the place to offer my own facsimile recommendations that can be found in much more condensed and well rounded publications, such as Eats & Drinks – a pocketbook compendium of recommendations provided by Mountain Xpress, including the Best of WNC (West North Carolina) with top voted establishments listed in sub-categories from readers polls of the previous year.
However, for those unacquainted with Asheville, or frequent visitors whose cursory weekend trips limit them to the town centre, here are a couple of suggestions from my girlfriend and my Pisgah Weekender:
#06: Homewardbound via Greenville
As a finale to our Pisgah Weekender, my girlfriend and I passed through Greenville to visit her brother. With an immaculate downtown, and handful of groovy little joints championing the craft beer movement, it seemed (in the short time I was there) Greenville is a quietly content and pleasant place blithely strumming its own tune – and certainly worth a stopover.
If you do pass through swing by the The Velo Fellow for a pint of Allagash black and play the deliriously simple and addictive table shuffleboard game. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend doing in Greenville is heading to Papa’s & Beer, a Mexican themed chain restaurant in nearby Simpsonville. Unless you’re are a curious sort, equipped with an iron gut who isn’t easily perturbed when your order isn’t what you ordered, and in the past has listened with disbelief to horror stories from friends about bad Mexican, unable to comprehend how anyone can possibly fuck up Mexican that badly – then please, do go to Papa’s & Beer. At least the happy hour serves $2.50 margaritas with a broad and mysterious range of dips.
Finally, if do pass through Greenville in the morning hours and fancy a brew you may well find yourself at the popular Coffee Underground. And if you do find yourself here heed my warning and Don’t Put Your Feet on the Furniture – unless you enjoy being reprimanded in the manner a librarian’s chastising a noisy child with uncomfortable sibilant whispers.
Of course as with any adventure, and it has been astutely remarked by many writers and commentators before me, the true reward of travel is in the journey and not the destination. However, the company you share a journey will determine how fondly the experience is remembered and recalled – and it that respect I couldn’t have been luckier.