Spring Beauties on Beauty Spot
Joy and I were on the AT again and it felt great. Despite the fact that it snowed two inches at my house a few days ago, today’s sun brought temperatures into the 80’s and left us both burned around the neck and forearms after an 8-mile trek.
We started where the trail crosses Red Fork Road near the Unaka Mountain Wilderness along the NC/TN state line. This 12-mile long gravel road is the closest thing I’ve found to the old BLM roads I rode along when I was a kid, backpacking all around the Cascades and eastern parts of Oregon. Which is to say it is fantastically absurd with its dizzy switchbacks, sinkholes, and wash-outs. At the crest, the view on either side stretches for hundreds of miles, one side toward the Tennessee flatlands and the other toward row after row of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
We knew the premier view would come later, though, as part of today’s hike included Beauty Spot—an open pasture atop vast ridge top. With the trees just barely leafing out in early spring, the views are still spectacular and the wind gusts quite cooling and enjoyable. About two miles into our climb, the forest opened up to a lime green knoll of fresh grass and where one might expect to see the tall branches of trees jutting up from the horizon line on the far end of the field, we were instead met with the site of half a dozen topless thirty-something brawny male through-hikers.
We stopped dead in our tracks. From our perch below them, these men looked like sprouting torsos silhouetted against a bright blue sky. One here, with dark brown hair, tossing a handful of rocks. Another there, with strawberry blond hair, poised with his hands on his hips. Still more of them gathering and parading back and forth, visible to us only from head to waist, their excellent, pale skin fitted over hiker’s muscles.
“Oh my god, Joy, it’s a field of men,” I said.
“Do you think they’re naked?”
“I don’t know.”
“They don’t even know we’re here. They haven’t even seen us yet,” she said.
“This is more guys our age than I’ve seen in three weeks in Mitchell County,” I said, though I didn’t have to. I knew she was thinking the same thing. “And they’re right here. On top of this mountain, just waiting for us.”
We watched for several minutes, then I nudged Joy into the trail and we forged ahead. “You just want to get a longer look at them, don’t you?” She smiled, taking the lead. There would be another chance, though, as today’s hike was an out-and-back.
The closer we got to the summit, the more clothing we saw. Indeed, the hikers were just topless, but when we approached we saw several more lounging around near tents or simply supine in the middle of the trail. The only way to pass would be to literally walk right through the band of brilliant bodies. We took our time and said brief, on-the-go hellos’.
Breathless on the other side, it took all the restraint we had not to turn back around and look. “Talk about some Beauty Spot!” I said.
“Yeah, you’re not kidding,” said Joy.
The return leg of the hike proved even more exciting. By then about sixteen men had gathered, gear and clothing strewn across the trail, many of them lying smack in the middle of the footpath. We crested the hill from the other side this time and were greeted by a pack-o-muscle Pitt bull mix with a loud bark and wagging tail.
“She’s ok, she’s friendly,” shouted one of the hikers. It was the strawberry blonde, who stood again with his hands on his hips, though this time fully clothed. “Where you from—Erwin or Johnson City?” he asked as we neared the band of brothers.
“Bakersville,” said Joy.
“Where the hell is that?” said Captain Gray, as I’ll call him, what with his quick-wicking gray trail shirt and matching Marmot shorts.
“Just on the other side of the mountain,” I said, pointing toward Roan.
Joy and I inched into the edge of their circle. All eyes were on us. The more I looked, the more of them I saw. Two more, here, peeking out from behind their packs. Another two under the shade of a rain fly. Five or six more who had just joined up, still sloughing off their packs and shirts, boots and socks.
“What is this?” I asked. “The Festival at Beauty Spot?”
A few of them smiled. “It’s the Festival of Zero Day!” one of them offered. A chorus of replies followed. Others tipped back bright orange cans of soda that day hikers must have offered as “Trail Angels” to the most irresistible of these hikers.
“Ah, a zero day,” I said. Joy was lost on me, somewhere gazing into this field of men, but silent at my side. I caught her profile once and she was all smiles. “Where are you headed next,” I asked Captain Gray.
He put his hands back on his hips. “Actually, some of us are doing six more miles to that shelter later on, then, whatever…Maine after that, I guess.” He smiled.
Joy and I moved a few more paces through the men, now fully encircled, and that’s when it hit. The most potent, pheromone-laced, man-based smell of hard work and too-long-since-being-kissed/laid/all-of-the-above. The wind blew and it was as though Joy and I were skunked, frozen in the middle of this congregation, all eyes on us. A few of the hikers had questions about the upcoming sections of the trail. Others wanted to know how far Bakersville was from Beauty Spot.
“When will you be at Roan?” I asked.
“By tomorrow night,” said Captain Gray.
“How far are you from there?” someone said.
“We’re about 14 miles downhill from Carver’s Gap,” I said. That takes you straight into town. You’ll love it up there though, all the grassy balds and ridgetop hiking. It’s spectacular.”
There was really nothing left to say. I thought how kind it would have been for us to bring them cold beer, cookies, fresh fruit. But the trail was right beneath our feet, a few more miles to go back to the car.
“Have a great time,” we said as we passed through to the other side. “Enjoy this sunshine.”
A hundred yards later we turned back to look.
“Did you feel that?” said Joy. “That…that wall of testosterone?”
“Feel it? I could smell it. That was fantastic!” I said.
“I know, I could too. It was through-hiker city up there.”
“It was a gift from the gods.”
A few miles later, Joy and I loaded up her Subaru and traded our hiking boots for sandals. Just as we were getting in, Captain Gray and two other hikers rounded the bend, moving at apparent light speed. “Ah, cars, I remember those!” said the Captain. And they were off, toward Tennessee, toward Virginia, toward some newer version of themselves with miles to go before they sleep, miles to go before they sleep.