“Hmm, I haven’t seen a blaze in a while,” I thought to myself as I wrestled with a briar that had wrapped itself around me like a hungry octopus. This turned out to be a recurring theme for most of this sufferfest.
Ethan Alexander, trail name Garbelly, and I had the idea to walk the length of the Cumberland Trail in one go. It all seemed simple enough. We’ve hiked over 7,000 miles between the two of us and were no strangers to getting lost, stuck in thunderstorms, thorns, facing shotgun-wielding locals, injuries, body funk, and insatiable appetites.
The problem is, the Cumberland Trail really isn’t a single trail at all. Rather, it’s a series of segments that are being worked on diligently by some amazing people in hopes of connecting them to one another. All together, there’s about 200 miles of trail built between Chattanooga and Cumberland Gap at the Tennessee-Kentucky-Virginia borders. Around 125 miles of those trails see enough traffic to justify maintenance, however. But the rest involves a lot of bushwhacking.
Two hours into our first day, it started to rain. It was the kind of rain that turns a trail into a creek. The kind of rain where you have to accept that you’re going to be wet. Everywhere. Several day hikers ran past us as we smiled and walked farther into the deluge, because that’s what thru hikers do. We aimed for the puddles.
Our second day was the real doozy of the trip. We soon came to realize that if an atlas, topo, and online map say a trail or road is going to be there, it still might not actually be there. While following an old logging road to get to the next trailhead, our path unexpectedly ended.
“Map check?” I ask.
“Sure.” Garbelly sighs.
After triple checking we were in the right spot, we figured the road must have existed at one point and was now just too overgrown to continue north on. So we found the next best thing; a deer path. It was going north (kinda), gave us something to follow, and the map said there was a creek down in the valley that we could then follow to an actual road. From there, we could either hitch or road walk to get to our second section and continue the hike.
After 25 miles of jungle-like bushwhacking, we eventually found ourselves stumbling out of someone’s backyard onto a paved road for the first time since what felt like years. We were cut up, soaked in sweat, covered in dirt, and mosquitos had feasted on any exposed skin.
“What’s wrong with us?” Garbelly asked about a week into the hike. We were playing a game of kick the pinecone while we meandered down a sleepy gravel road. “I mean it. Why do we enjoy suffering like this so much? Other people do things that they can just relax at.”
He made a good point. Why were we unnecessarily putting all this hardship into our lives when we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves? Were we enjoying ourselves? We weren’t angry about our misery. But we weren’t exactly comfortable.
If you can triumph over the exhaustion, heat, stinging nettles, and everything else kind of terrible, then you get to revel in the feeling of knowing that you accepted the challenge of throwing yourself into a situation that was completely uncontrollable, and you came out fine. And you did it while carrying everything you needed to keep being fine on your back. It’s an extremely empowering feeling, one that both Garbelly and I have become addicted to. So we kept walking, one foot in front of the other, all the way to Cumberland Gap.
Our Three Favorite Spots Along The Cumberland Trail
The Obed Wild and Scenic River
The rock formations and foliage are awe inspiring on this section. There’s roller coaster like trail that’s top notch quality. Everything was great. Everything except jumping into a lukewarm river… Like kind of hot river… Seriously, why is that river not cold?
This creek has amazing boulders and a beautiful bridge. The place is so perfect for a lunch break with all the table top boulders filling in the gorge.
Laurel Snow Pocket Wilderness
Spooky tunnels, stories of ghosts and mountain lions, a beautiful river cutting through, rickety bridges, and great campsites you can have to yourself? Yes, please.
Chris Pickering and Ethan Alexander have started a GoFundMe to raise awareness and funds to donate to the Cumberland Trail Conference. 100% of the funds will go to the trail crews that go out and sweat and dig in dirt for five days a week so we can walk these beautiful paths: GoFundMe.com/ConnectingTheCT