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"Border States" High Points & More . . .


Author: Gary Clark

Participants: Gary Clark (Expedition planning, technical climbing leader), Lynn Clark (navigation & logistics coordinator)

Preface: First, I should explain the title. "Border States" is a historical designation for the states on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. These comprised the Northern and Southern borders of the Confederate States of America and the Union, respectively, during the Civil War, the legacy of which is still very much evident in this region. This is also Daniel Boone country, and we amused ourselves during the long hours of driving by listening to his biography on the stereo. He makes the modern "hardman" climber look like a simpering wimp.

Second let me explain the High Points game to the uninitiated: The goal is to get to the top of the high points of as many of the 50 states as possible. If it is possible to drive to the top, the purist will hike instead from (at least) the nearest "T" interection. The high points comprise a gamut of experiences from a multi-week high-altitude expedition (Alaska) to a dairy farm feedlot (Iowa). You might be asking "Why would a sane person be interested in this pursuit?" I can think of 3 responses - you can take your pick:

If you have to ask, you'll never understand.

Because they are there.

It provides for a fairly complete exploration of the US of A, with a specific motivating agenda. The high points are often in the most interesting and scenic portion of the state. All of the objectives west of the Great Plains are very worthwhile endeavors, regardless of their designation as the state high point.

The Story: Another business trip to the East . . . I discover that, by clever arrangement of my airline schedule, I can not only save my employer some money, but can arrange a driving itinerary that includes several states I have never visited. All this with only one vacation day and two weekends!

7/15: We spend all day flying to Charleston, West Virginia. It was not supposed to take all day, but Delta Airlines apparently decided its flights were not full enough to be profitable on the last leg of this trip and simply combined us with passengers on a flight departing 3 hours later. This they did with complete duplicity, never indicating to the passengers coming to a slow boil in the terminal what was going on. My only revenge is to give them all the negative advertising possible, starting with this trip report, and to avoid flying Delta in the future.

We drove in gathering darkness and a rainstorm of ferocity I've only ever seen in the East toward our first objective, the high point of Kentucky. We had a lot of miles to make and were behind schedule (thanks to Delta Airlines, which I think I already mentioned really sucks) and so didn't start looking for a motel until around 10:00p. Unfortunately we were by now in a resort area and tried 11 hotels until we finally got lucky. And I do mean lucky, because that hotel had also been turning people away for hours. While we were at the desk asking for any guidance, the clerk remembered a room that they normally don't rent. It was set up for meetings, but it had a bathroom and a fold-down wall bed. We were ecstatic to have anything better than the front seats of our rental car (A Hyundai, billed as a "full-size" by Budget. Budget sucks, too.).

7/16: Off to find the high point of KENTUCKY (Black Mtn, 4145'). Neither of us had ever set foot in Kentucky before, so this seemed to fit within motivation #3 in the preface above. However, this notion was dispelled when we discovered that the high point was about 50' over the border from North Carolina. We would cross the border, drive up a short road owned and controlled by a coal company, hike a few hundred yards to the high point, and be back in NC inside of an hour. We did see big flocks of very cool butterflies and some nice flowers, though, and talk to some local motorcyclists who had ridden up the road as well. We almost needed a translator to understand their stong Appalachian accents. We also saw the curse of Kentucky - the mountain was laced with coal, visible in thick seams in the road cuts. We had learned from the locals that the company that owned the high point had planned at one time to erase it with their coal shovels until those plans became public and were met with widespread protest. There is considerable sentiment for the highest points in states, even such ignominious ones as this.

It was already mid afternoon, but I did some quick calculations and suggested we try to put NORTH CAROLINA in the bag before sunset. We had made the approach once before in April of 1999, but it was too early in the season, and the road was (sensibly) barricaded at around 3000' where a thick layer of ice rendered driving (and even walking) just about impossible. It is frustrating to do the driving approach to a state high point and be denied the summit, since for most of the eastern 2/3 of the country, the driving is the crux of the trip. This time we arrived at the T intersection with the summit road about 6:00p on a warm pleasant evening and began the hike. We were looking at 4 miles and 1500' to the summit from here; we'd need to hustle to be back before dark.

Mt. Mitchell has the distinction of being the highest point East of the Mississippi. At 6684' it offers an almost alpine environment on top. The hike was excellent, with the first couple of miles on a narrow scenic road, and the last two on a trail through the incredibly lush green vegetation that characterizes the Appalachians in summer. We got up in 1:20 and back down in 1:10, for a round trip of less than 3 hours including eating our sandwiches on the top. Not bad for 8 miles at these extreme altitudes, we thought. In the spirit of Reinhold Messner, we eschewed using supplemental oxygen, which would have improved our time even more.

7/17-7/20: I attended my class in Charlotte, NC while Lynn looked for something fun to do in this huge overpopulated city. The class was quite good, and I'm confident that the taxpayers would be grateful if they could only know the increased productivity it will produce.

7/21: To the North! On the way we couldn't resist an 80-mile detour to visit Appommatox Court House where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, ending the Civil War. This is now a National Historic Park, and was so compelling that we spent 3 hours there. Highly recommended. Now on to WEST VIRGINIA! We passed right under Seneca Rocks on the road to Spruce Knob (4963'), in spite of the fact we knew it was closed due to repairs of the approach road and the summit tower. At the Monongahela Forest Service office we bought a detailed map and got directions for an alternate approach. This went well, and we arrived at the top after a two-mile hike just after the workmen at the summit had departed for lunch. The entire summit area was cordoned off, but with no construction going on at the moment it was perfectly safe to make a dash to the benchmark while no one was looking. This was a very nice summit in a beautifully verdant area. There are apparently large areas of WV that are blighted due to coal mining and/or poverty, but we didn't see any. We crossed the state twice in our travels, and came to understand John Denver's designation "Almost Heaven."

It was mid afternoon already, but MARYLAND was not far to the North. It went down easily; a 3-mile round trip hike on an old logging road now converted to a hiking trail. The trail and summit area (Backbone Mtn, 3360') were carefully maintained by members of the "Maryland HighPoint Club," who had placed a summit register and picnic table at the top and even cleared trees to provide a view into the rest of the state. There was even a stand for a camera in the appropriate location for a self-timed summit photo. We didn't tarry on the summit because we had to get to PENNSYLVANIA. We had a few route-finding difficulties on this one, but eventually found the right intersection after sharing many miles of country roads with Amish folks driving the classic black one-horse carriages. The hike to the top was about a mile and a half, during which we were passed by two cars. Soon we were atop a huge tower overlooking the verdant landscape. The high point is called Mt. Davis, 3211', but this is actually just a point on a much larger feature, the naming of which I found very interesting. It seems that in pre-Civil War times a local man performed a heroic act on this mountain by rescuing an entire family that would have otherwise perished. The mountain was named for him, but due to his ethnicity the authorities could not quite bring themselves to bestow his actual name. It is called Negro Mountain.

The drive to OHIO was going to be one of the longest. We got about half of it done before calling it a day.

7/22: We needed an alpine start for today's objectives. It was still only 8:30 when we arrived in the vicinity of Ohio's high point (Campbell Hill, 1550'). The guidebook indicated this was on private property (some kind of school), and indicated it was only open during weekdays. We started making phone calls as soon as we decided on Friday to commit to this objective, but only reached a recording. After we'd done our approach hike, we arrived at a large gate in a high cyclone fence with a sign to the effect "Trespassers will be violated." This used to be a Nike Missile site, and they hadn't bothered to take down the fences, which as one might guess were formidable. We hung around for about an hour peering covetously and disconsolately at the high point, which was marked by a flag pole in the yard about 100' distant. We were hoping someone would show up on the grounds who might take pity on us, but eventually my need for breakfast overcame my summit fever. We rationalized that we did the crux of the climb (the drive), but in our hearts we knew this was one we'd have to return to in order to check it off the list.

After a huge breakfast at a great little cafe called (no kidding)" Ma and Pa's Country Restaurant," we headed west for INDIANA. This high point is also on private property, but this time on a family farm. We had called ahead for permission, so were reasonably sure that that particular objective hazard would not defeat us twice in a day. The day was perfect with brilliant blue skies and fluffy white clouds, and the corn was tall along our deliberately long approach hike. After about a mile of shuffling along a classic American Heartland country road, a pickup pulled up alongside: "You folks having any trouble?" . . . I didn't want to launch into a lengthy explanation, since he would doubtless conclude we were dangerously deranged if he knew the truth, so I just responded "No, it's a nice day, so we're just out for a walk." 20 minutes later we turned a corner onto another road (all laid out in the classic rural American one-mile NSEW grid), and started looking in earnest for the high point. I heard another car pulling up alongside, and was a bit dismayed to see it was the same elderly gentleman. He must be genuinely suspicious of these strangers - people just don't "go for a walk" in these parts, I thought. But this time he said "You lookin' for the high point?" And then ensued a long friendly conversation during which he lamented that he was "too stove up from a stroke" to be out hiking and climbing mountains himself.

This conversation burned a lot of precious daylight. In the mountains, speed is safety. We checked the guidebook and were chagrined to realize that we were still over 100ft from the summit, and still had 12 to 14 inches of altitude to gain. The pace of the previous several days was beginning to take its toll - would we have the energy to continue and still return safely? It is times like this that test the mettle of the mountaineer. Realizing that we had come so far, we agreed to dig deep and push on. Another obstacle presented itself - two fearsome beasts from the front yard of the farm woke from their slumber under a big shade tree and came racing out, barking until they got almost within striking distance. "Nice doggies," I intoned, and soon they were wagging and sniffing in circles around us until they lost interest and returned to their tree. What other obstacles would this peak provide? I wondered. I briefly worried about avalanche conditions, but the temperature was well over 80F, it hadn't snowed in 4 months, and the slope was to the untrained eye dead level; certainly far short of the 35-50 degrees that are considered most dangerous. And then I saw it - the crux loomed before us. In climbing jargon it is known as a "stile", and though difficult, it was easier than a direct assault on the barbed-wire fence it was built to surmount. Soon we were signing into the summit register. The summit area was expansive; indeed, if cleared of trees it would have made another excellent corn field. However, it was plagued with mosquitoes, so we took the mandatory summit photos quickly and began the long descent. This time the dogs showed no interest. Just past the farm house we were approached by another vehicle. The driver asked if we knew where the high point was. A kindred soul! We chatted about High Points and he soon learned that we were from the West. He had plans to climb Rainier with the guide service in the Fall, and was wildly excited about this and learning to climb in general so he could accomplish the Western States High Points. I gave him a card with my web site address on it to further whet his appetite, and he did a U-turn to head back toward the high point. I hope he learns better route finding as he moves on to even more serious objectives in his climbing career.

The rest of the trip was "down hill." We had a fairly lengthy drive back to Charleston, WV. As we turned in the rental car we noted the trip mileage as 2047mi. The flight back on Delta Airlines (did I mention that they suck?) was routine, and soon we were at Macaroni Grill in Albuquerque, our traditional spot for post-trip celebration dinners.

Postscript: In case you're wondering, we've now done half (actually, 26) of the states. We started this game 3 years ago when we heard about it from a friend. We had already done some of the hard ones in the western states, (Rainier, Hood, and Whitney), so it seemed like a simple exercise to finish up the other 47. So far the only real clunker has been Ohio. (Well, OK, Kentucky wasn't exactly a bell ringer.)

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