I am an avid hiker. I love hiking trails every month or so when the weather is nice. My stomping grounds include most of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. My work allows me the freedom to decide on a whim to just take an hour or two drive to one of hundreds of trails near me and sometimes I even head out overnight to reach new areas to explore. I love hiking, but I have to tell you about this one trip I took two years ago. It is burned forever into my memory, so I’ll tell you about it as though it just happened.
A fog had settled in as I drove up into the mountains of North Carolina. I’d previously looked into several trails to hit for some spectacular waterfalls. These are my favorite types of hikes. Some of the best waterfalls are often on some trails along backroads that are poorly marked, or not even paved. Sometimes even the maps are wrong as weather in this area can cause trails to be rerouted, or removed altogether. You can ask my friends. We’ve been on some “extended” hikes unintentionally due to having outdated information. Trust me. It is no fun walking out in pitch black with only the light of your cell phone barely illuminating your feet as you walk next to what you can only imagine is some fifty or sixty foot drop to your side.
Well, I found what I thought was the correct turn off. The fog was so thick that I couldn’t see any markings, but the dirt road was pretty close to the mileage indicated by the directions I’d printed off. That was when things started to get a little odd. The dirt road was supposed to run for about a mile before taking a sharp left, but after two miles it still only had turned gently left and then right again. I was thinking about turning around when I came around a sharp right that quickly turned back left. This had to be the turn, or so I thought. It went a little further and dead ended. The map had indicated it should have gone another mile and a half, but maybe it too had to be rerouted. We had recently had some mud slides in the area. I just prayed there wouldn’t be one while I was hiking.
I got out of the car, checked my gear, adjusted my straps, and extended my walking stick. I never go hiking without my walking stick. It has saved my life, literally. Remember when I mentioned walking out in the dark one time. Well, I was on the side of a cliff and I lost my footing. I had stabbed the stick into the ground as I fell and held on for dear life. My friend helped pull me back up onto the trail. Luckily it wasn’t a straight drop off cliff, but the grade wasn’t insignificant, either. I highly recommend the sturdy kind with the sharp point on the bottom. You never know. I sometimes even imagine should it come down to it, it could be used to protect myself from wildlife. I’ve seen plenty of bears on my hikes, but luckily, I’ve not had to test my theory out. Bears seem to want to avoid you, at least in these parts.
I usually go hiking with a friend or two, safety in numbers, but being male and decently built (if only a little on the pudgy side), I’m not afraid to go hiking on my own. I always let a family member know where I’m going and when I’m expected to be back. I only wish I had brought a friend along on this hike. Where was I? Oh, yeah, I’d just gotten set up and looked for the tale-tale trail entrance. Usually, a short fence or a large sign marked the entrance. Here I only saw a small wooden plank set across a small run-off ditch. No sign, but there was a blue line painted on the tree nearby. The trail description I’d read mentioned that it started by crossing a small ditch and the blaze was supposed to be blue, so I breathed a small sigh of relief.
The morning light was just starting to filter through the fog, but visibility was still very limited. Many mornings in the mountains here start this way, and more often than not, the sun would bake the fog off quickly. The first ten minutes was a gentle climb up mountain as expected. That was when I heard the first noise. Just a simple snap of a stick. It startled me, but branches fall and animals step on them. “Snapping sticks, things falling to the ground, not that uncommon, nothing to worry about.”, I told myself. My heart started to calm down, but not two minutes later I hear another snapping sound. This time to my left. Was something circling me? We do have wild cats here. I stopped. I listened. Nothing. Dead silence.
I calmed myself slowly, breathing in, breathing out. I let out a small laugh. Stupid, but still, it happened. I continued along the path and heard nothing for a time. The ground had leveled out. I must be along the first of two ridge lines I needed to follow to reach the waterfall. This was the easy part of the hike. The trail was supposed to go for a half mile level before the steep climb, four hundred feet in a quarter mile, then another six hundred feet in the same distance before leveling out again. I was saving my water for that section, but I still sipped some. The only problem is that I had only gone another five minutes before the path curved and went sharply uphill. I still saw the blue blaze here and there, but this was too early. I was beginning to wonder if I was on the right trail after all! Could they have put two trails with the same color blaze so close together? Surely not! Maybe another re-route? I wished the fog would clear more so I could see further!
I continued on and after two minutes it leveled out again. Whew! Just a small blip too small to show on the map, but enough to scare me. I don’t think I would have panicked so easily had the fog not been getting denser. The sun must have been baking it off the lower parts of the mountain making it thicker where I was. I’d already climbed a good two hundred feet vertical. I know people out west might be making fun of me. These “mole hills” don’t compare to the mountains there, but for us, they are enough. That was when I heard it again.
“Snap!” this one was louder and much closer sounding. I could have sworn it was right behind me! I turned around quickly, but nothing was there! “Who’s out there?!”, I shouted. No one replied. Again, there was silence. I was sweating now. Not from exertion, but from fear. I didn’t know if a wild animal was following me. I didn’t know if there was a crazed person on the trail. I wasn’t even completely convinced I was on the right trail. That is when I told myself I needed to calm down. There were the blazes. The trail seemed to match, at least somewhat to the description. Also, most animals steer clear of people, except for squirrels. Those critters are absolutely crazy. Have you ever heard them bark? They’ll literally stand their ground and bark at you like a dog. At least some of them do. They also carry disease, so I tend not to mess with them. About that time, two of them ran across the path and up the tree next to me. They can have all the nuts they want. Just leave me alone I prayed.
I laughed it off after releasing the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. Stupid animals. “Give me a heart attack, why don’t you?”, I say. They looked at me and barked before scurrying further up the tree. “Yeah, you too, buddy!” I replied, turning back to continue on the trail. The fog had finally started to clear, but it still hung above my head. The tree tops were not visible, but you could see the errant ray of light breaking through. This is when I noticed the tree with a hole in it. I know you’re saying to yourself what is so special about a tree with a hole in it. I’d agree with you except this tree was in the middle of the trail and the hole was just wide enough to squeeze through if you turned sideways. I had to duck just ever so slightly as the two parts of the tree base came together barely an inch taller than I was, so my skull couldn’t fit through at even height.
The two parts of the base also went to both edges of the trail such that you had to pass through the tree to continue. To the lower side, the hill dropped off too steeply to safely go around it that way and a large rock was pushing against the tree on the upper side. The mountain laurels on that side were too thick to circle around either without back tracking a good way back and who knew if there was a path through them further up the mountain. For all I knew they continued up and over the mountain top. I stared at the tree a few minutes admiring the oddity of it all. The moss covered a large portion of the base to one side.
Then the sun broke through shining on the hole making the scene that much more old-world looking. I was suddenly drawn to the hole. I walked through it as if in a trance. After I passed through the hole though it was suddenly very dark. I looked overhead to find the reason why. The tree cover on this side of the hole was much denser. How could I have not noticed this before? It wasn’t as if I couldn’t see the trail up ahead of the tree, but yet there had been thicker fog only minutes before. Maybe that was it? I was suddenly chilled. That was when I realized, I heard no sounds anymore. No gentle wind. No rustle of leaves. No birds. No squirrels. Silence. Dead silence.
Even as I stepped forward on the trail, my feet didn’t make any noise. The crunching of debris on the trail was empty. Missing. Not muffled. Not quieter. There. Was. No. Sound. Had I gone deaf? “Hello.”, my voice came out in a squeak. Had I brought a friend I’d never live down that noise I’d just made. Nope. I’d not gone deaf. I bent down to pick up a stick I saw ahead of me. I tapped it against the tree. Nothing. No sound again. What in the freak of nature was happening?! I looked back at the trail from where I’d come. There was no trail! The tree with the hole was there…or rather the tree was there, but the hole was gone! The trail dead-ended at the base of the tree. You could still see where the two halves split, but it was barely an inch wide now!
I was shaking uncontrollably. Sweat poured down my forehead, but I was so cold. Even my breath was producing mist now. What was going on?! Where was I?! I couldn’t continue, but I couldn’t turn back either! I looked forward to see if there were any blue blazes. The only thing my tiny piece of rational thought left for me to do. I saw a blaze up ahead, but it wasn’t blue. It was crimson! And it wasn’t a nice rectangle, but rather looked like a hand print smeared hastily by someone running from something. That was when I heard the whistling breath. It sounded a little like a train whistle mixed with the sound of a chain smoker trying to catch their breath. I swore if I had heard a banjo at that moment, I would have died then and there from pure panic. As it was, I started half jogging up the trail.
My feet still made no sound. It was at such odds with everything I knew of the physical world that I almost tripped every few seconds. I couldn’t keep an even rhythm. I doubt I could have run, but I did manage a decent pace. The trail looped up and around towards the next ridge line. I could hear something behind me. It wasn’t the sound of feet. It was the same whistling breath. It never came closer, but it never fell behind either. I didn’t dare turn around. I didn’t dare stop. I kept my jog going.
There was no more fog, but the sun seemed to be hidden completely. The air was getting colder. I was starting to sweat more from the endurance, but this only chilled me worse despite the heat my exertion was causing. I didn’t know how much more of this I could take. I crossed the ridge, but instead of following the ridgeline further up mountain, the trail turned sharply left and started back down the other side of the mountain. The breath seemed to have gotten closer to me. Not much, but enough to let me know I’d slowed down some. Despite going downhill now, I seemed to be going slower. It was as if the air itself had gotten thicker. I prayed very hard for an escape and then I saw it. Another tree with a hole in it and sunshine, glorious sunshine on the other side!
I ran quickly through the gap, scraping my sides and cutting my forehead at the same time. I felt a hand grab at my pack, but just as quickly as I got through the tree, the pressure pulling on me was gone! I didn’t slow down though. I kept running. I had no idea where I was heading, only that I was going away from that cursed creature! I still have no idea what it looked like. Only the sound it made in that soundless place. That is when I realized my feet were making noise again. A lot of noise. I saw squirrels running up trees, barking madly at me. I didn’t care! I kept running. I kept following the blue blazes, those blessed blue blazes. In only minutes I suddenly found myself running across the plank, across the ditch, and back to my car!
How’d I end up back at my car?! I never crossed back over the ridge. At no point did I turn back around on the trail, and I couldn’t recall any place the trail split. Yet, here I was. I threw my backpack into the back seat with my hiking stick. I fumbled the key into the ignition and I spun a little dirt getting turned around heading back down the dirt road. The fog had lifted completely now so as I got back on the main highway, I saw that the side road I’d turned down had no sign. I was so petrified by what happened I didn’t turn off again until I hit the interstate heading home.
I’d told my friend about the weird forest trail the next time he asked me when we were going to go hiking again. He didn’t believe a word I’d said, so I told him that if he was willing, that I’d show him where the trail started, but I also told him in no uncertain terms that I’d never go hiking that trail again. He kept pushing the issue. So, I drove him up the interstate, along the highway, and down the side road, but when we got to where the dirt road had been, there was no road. No turn off. Only trees. Thick pines. I thought maybe I’d remembered the mileage wrong so we drove further up the road, but there were no turn offs on that side of the road. No turn offs on the other side either for that matter. My friend started laughing at me. He joked about my map issues. He joked about our “extended” hikes. I didn’t feel comfortable at the jokes, but what happened to the road? To that trail? Had any of it really happened?
We went all the way back to the interstate and stopped on the next off ramp with a small town. We were informed that the side road we turned off of was apparently about a mile too soon for the waterfall hike. We were told that there are quite a few sideroads cutting through these mountains that don’t really go anywhere. Some are just forest roads, others just go out to undeveloped land, and some are old logging roads, long since abandoned. The guy said it’s good we turned around as some people have gotten confused, lost, run out of gas, and have had to walk out. He even said there have been some cases of missing persons. I asked if he knew about another hiking trail in the area, but he looked bewildered saying that as far as he knew there was only one blue blazed trail in the area leading to a waterfall.
I sometimes wonder how much the fog played into me getting lost. The correct road was well marked, as was the dirt road leading to the intended hike. The blue blazed trail there looked similar to the other, but less threatening, and we never encountered any trees with holes in them on that day. We made it to the waterfall and it was a great day of hiking, but I’ve never taken that other side road again, and I never will!
Copyright April 30, 2021. All Rights Reserved.