Mountains-to-Sea Maintenance – Search but not rescue

OVC - Fire pinks

It had been raining for several days and Lenny had postponed trail maintenance on his Mountains-to-Sea Trail section for a week now. We woke up to rain again this morning but it soon cleared. By 11 a.m., Lenny decided that the rain was over for the day and he could go out and do some weed eating on the trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway – Beaver Dam Gap Milepost 401.7 to Big Ridge Overlook Milepost 403.6. He left me a note which said “I’ll be home late. I’ll call you when I get off the trail.” That was fine with me. I had a little more time to make dinner.

At 6:30 P.M., I got annoyed. He hadn’t called yet and the chicken was getting cold. Reluctantly, I put dinner in the refrigerator and went back to my computer. Something was gnawing at me. He’s being out almost eight hours. Subtract the 45 minutes that it takes to get to the closer end of his section and it’s still too long to be out there. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea for him to go out alone with a weed eater.

By 7 p.m., I was worried. If I was going to go out and see where he was, this was the time. Today was the longest day of the year and light for another two hours. I called Carroll, a hiking friend to let him know what I was doing. “I’m leaving now,” I said. To my surprise, Carroll said “Let me put some hiking shorts and boots on and I’ll meet you at the French Broad Overlook.” This is the first overlook on the Parkway south of Asheville.

I gathered my stuff. We were only going to hike two miles but I needed to be prepared for anything that I might find. I put on boots. I checked my pack for my first aid kit, flashlight, and flagging tape. I took a rain jacket, two energy bars, and two quarts of water. That’s a lot of water for two miles but Lenny might need it.

I met Carroll at the overlook and he signaled for me to get into his car. “No,” I said. “We need to put cars at both ends. No point us walking any further than we have to.” We checked our cell phone and we both had only one bar. We knew that we would lose that little cell coverage as we got further on the Parkway. “Do you want to call 911?” he asked.

“No. We got to find him first. He may not even be on the Parkway anymore. We need to find his car as well. “

I left my car at Beaver Dam Gap, one end of the section, and got into Carroll’s car. We continued south on the Parkway and saw Lenny’s Prius at Stony Bald Overlook, the overlook about half-way on his section. So he was on the trail, somewhere.

We drove to the southern endpoint and started walking on the MST. We could see that the trail had been freshly weed eaten. Weeds and leaves were laying on the trail. We climbed to a local high point as possible scenarios flowed through my mind.

Carroll is a sensible Midwesterner and not a “touchy-feely” person. He’s 81 years old and in amazing shape even if he were 30 years younger. He may not be the fastest hiker in Carolina Mountain Club but he’s the most consistent and the most dependable. Carroll wasn’t going to tell me that “everything is going to be all right” because I knew it wasn’t.

The two miles meander up and down and cross the Parkway a couple of times. It’s part of the Shut-in Trail, which goes from Biltmore Estate to the remains of Buck Spring Lodge. When George Vanderbilt, grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, built Biltmore Estate in the late 1800s, he also constructed a trail to Buck Spring Lodge, his hunting lodge about 18 miles away.

We got through the first mile in 20 minutes. At Stony Bald Overlook, the trail crosses the Parkway. I looked into Lenny’s car to make sure that his body wasn’t stuffed in the back seat. Nothing had been moved. The equipment bag that comes with the weed eater was still there but the weed eater itself must have been with Lenny.

Without checking his cell phone, Carroll said, “Maybe we should call 911.” But I was adamant. “We need to find him. We can do the search. If we can’t handle things by ourselves when we find him, then one of us will get off the trail and call 911 for the rescue part. And by the way, for the Parkway, it’s 1-800-PARKWATCH.”

Our phone number is everywhere. So I’ve gotten calls from wives who say ‘”My husband is late from a hike. Should I call 911?” and my advice is always ‘no, wait’. “When you call 911, you unleash a process of 50 searchers, dogs and an army of support personnel that you can’t stop. Depending on who responds, they may be the local EMTs who aren’t familiar with the woods. Some come with slick city shoes and have a difficult time on hiking trails.” 

After a drink of water, we continued on the trail. More signs of cutting. Good, I figured. The further along he got, the less time he spent in the woods incapacitated. I started to fiddle with my pack and Carroll sped ahead of me. I walked alone and each freshly cut piece is encouraging. What would I find? There’s no way that Lenny’s still working on the trail. He tells me that it’s very heavy work. He has to carry the weed eater on the trail as well as the fuel and other equipment. He’s only good for a few hours.

What would I find? A broken ankle sounded good. A heart attack, unlikely. A fall and being cut by the weedwhacker? I was most afraid of that. As I descended, the trail was bushy and overgrown. He must have stopped here. Maybe he ran out of fuel, out of energy or something happened. I looked at both sides of the trail for a body or equipment. Nothing, so I keep walking bobbing my head from side to side, searching for anything unusual.

At a local top, the trail narrows to a point on a rock. I lean into the trail and place my feet carefully until I’m back on dirt. I scan down the steep side toward the Parkway but I don’t see anything. Maybe Lenny got off the trail safely. If that’s the case, he would leave the weed eater hidden in the bushes, walk back to his car, and pick up the equipment when he had the car. I need to look off the trail to find the weed eater.

Maybe he got hit when walking back on the Parkway to his car. But that didn’t make sense. The hospital would have called our house. We’re not difficult to find. Being kidnapped by aliens didn’t enter my mind.

Then I hear laughter – two men laughing – Carroll and Lenny. “I found him,” Carroll yells out. “He’s fine.” I came down the trail to Beaver Dam Gap Overlook to my car. Lenny was smiling. “I told you I was going to be late,” he said. I couldn’t argue with that. “I just got your message that you were coming after me. I tried to call you back but you obviously had no reception.”

“What were you doing on the trail, for so long?” I asked. I wasn’t angry; I was puzzled more than relieved. “It was slow work. I do maybe a quarter mile of trail an hour,” he said. The string kept breaking on the weed eater. After I finished the first mile, I walked back to get the car and move it, and on it went.” There’s no cutting blade at the end of the weed eater. A taut string is the cutting edge. When it hits a rock or branch or something it can’t cut, it breaks. This makes it safer on the trail. There’s less chance of a rock flying off.
It was getting dark and we were all hungry. Lenny was filthy, with bits of grass clinging to his shirt, pants and hair. I thanked Carroll profusely and drove him back to his car. The Parkway at night was almost deserted. A line of motorcyclists were coming toward us. Two young men in jeans and long-sleeve shirts got out of their truck and walked on the other side of the road. The vehicle headlights were left on. I looked at them straight in the eye and wondered what they were doing.

We took showers, had some yogurt for dinner, and went to bed. We were too tired to talk this out. The next morning, at breakfast, we went through the scenario again.

“Well, I couldn’t get started until 11 o’clock so I continued until I ran out of daylight. It was a long d
ay,” Lenny said.

“I was concerned. If I was going to go out and find you, I needed daylight. I was not going to wait until 9 p.m. to go out for you. By 7 o’clock, you hadn’t called. That’s a long time on the trail.”

“I understand. But I couldn’t get you on the phone.”

“Forget cell phones. We’ve been operating for years without cell phones. I could have said ‘well, he’ll come home when he comes home.’ Maybe I should have waited until the next morning.”

And that’s what we agreed on. If one of us doesn’t come home from the trail in the evening, we’re not going to worry or do anything until the next morning.

I got overly concerned but I did something right. I didn’t call 911.             

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