23.10.2015 - 25.10.2015
Picture yourself trapped in the middle of the woods without electricity, wi-fi, or cell phone service. You have no car. The only way to get out is to hike through the woods for miles until you reach a dirt road….a dirt road with nothing on it for 4 miles.
No, this is not a story about how Matt and I crashed the plane and foraged our way through the wilderness surviving on pine cones and crickets. This is a story about our recent vacation “off the grid” at Charit Creek Lodge in Big South Fork, although, no weekend that begins by hiking your luggage in on a 2 mile trail can really be called a “vacation.”
I have tried and failed to wean Matt from his technology addiction. Even on vacation, he is continuously plugged in. The photos below demonstrate the severity of his dependence on electronic things and the difficult challenge that I face.
Matt on his phone in Hawaii:
Matt on his phone in the BVI:
Matt on his phone in Philly:
Matt on his iPad on Jost Van Dyke:
Matt on his phone in Italy:
Okay, so he's not actually on the phone in that photo. I just wanted you to see that he's reading Twilight, because that's funny stuff.
Matt on his phone at the Chattanooga Aquarium (as evidenced by the "flip phone," this problem has been ongoing for quite some time.....):
Matt on his phone in Anguilla with a curious donkey looking on - I'm pretty sure the donkey is saying, "Man, what are you DOING?"
The only way to uplug Matt is to take him somewhere with no cell phone service and no wi-fi. If there is no electricity and the nearest road is at least a 2 hour walk….all the better.
When I stumbled upon a description of the Charit Creek Lodge, I was immediately intrigued.
"Charit Creek Lodge is a rustic wilderness lodge located in a valley in the heart of Big South Fork. While reasonably accessible, it is both peacefully isolated and remote. It is accessible by hiking, biking or horseback only. The lodge is a wonderful place to escape the modern world. The lodge is completely off the grid with no wi-fi, phones, or electricity. Hand-built fences zigzag the collective area, encasing it within a hollow, emerald grassland peppered with wildflowers. All cabins offer toasty, wood-burning stoves and comfortable bedding. Every meal is fully-prepared beforehand by the staff, dinner experienced by the comely flicker of kerosene lamps. Chosen foods are familiar to Southern, home-style cuisine, featured plates ranging from cornbread and cast iron fried chicken, candied yams and spicy turnip greens, and fresh chocolate cake or apple pie. Bellies filled, residents may proceed to the rocking chairs upon the decks to stargaze into the infinitesimal beauty of the Cosmos, exceedingly clear amongst the solitude of nature. Novels may be read by candlelight or roaring fires kindled outside, all the while listening to the chorus of cicadas, glow bugs streaking the star-ridden sky above. The experience of Charit Creek Lodge is true charm. It offers a classical feel like no other. It returns visitors to their center, their sense of peace and belonging in the world. The spirit becomes reawakened by the placidity of nature in this place, and after gazing back in time here, one returns to the daily grind at home increasingly self-aware."
Forget the placidity of nature and the reawakened spirit. They had me at fried chicken and apple pie.
The drive from Knoxville to the remote dirt road where we would access the hiking trail was about 3 hours, so we grabbed a pizza and hit the road, boots and backpacks loaded and ready.
It was a perfect fall day with a clear blue sky and leaves at their peak.
The drive took us through Rugby, TN. I don’t know how I have lived in Tennessee for 25 years without hearing about Rugby.
Rugby was founded by Thomas Hughes, the novelist famous for Tom Brown’s School Days (don’t feel bad, I haven’t heard of it either). Hughes was an idealist who founded the town to provide a place for the younger sons of titled English nobility and give them a means of gainful employment. Because their elder brothers inherited the family wealth and titles, these youth were dependent on handouts from the family patriarch yet were prohibited by social custom from actual employment. So these younger sons wasted their days drinking, gambling and chasing after loose women.
Hughes’ idea was to provide a place of their own, where they could learn a trade and be productive members of society. He funded the construction of a little Victorian English village in the Southern highlands of Tennessee. At its peak Rugby had 65 buildings, more than 350 residents, a large inn, a weekly newspaper, tennis courts, and even a factory that canned tomatoes. For a short while the experiment seemed to be working.
Unfortunately, when given the chance to spend their days working instead of drinking, gambling and chasing after loose women, the only ones that ended up working were the ones pouring the drinks, dealing the cards, and hiking up their skirts. Within about a decade it became obvious that the settlement of Rugby wasn't working out, and most of Rugby's original settlers moved away or died. (Probably from cirrhosis or syphilis.)
What the late nineteenth century social experiment left behind was this village of quaint and beautiful Victorian homes and a number of mostly English ghosts in the heart of Dixie. Today Rugby is merely a ghost of an ideal village that almost was. What’s left behind is a charming village of beautiful homes, churches, and shops.
We spent some time walking through Rugby’s picturesque streets before getting back on the road for the final stretch to Big South Fork.
After a long drive down some winding dirt roads, we found ourselves at the trailhead. Unfortunately, it was the WRONG trailhead because I am not very good at reading maps. There are several ways to hike into Charit Creek Lodge, the shortest being only a .8 mile hike. This was obviously the one I had targeted because I had to make sure we got there in time for pie dinner. The trailhead I actually took us to required a 2 mile hike. Still, not too bad.
The hike in was a beautiful display of blue sky and show stopping leaves, so I was secretly glad we went the long way.
The trail eventually took us to a clearing down in a hollow where the Charit Creek Lodge sat nestled among the golden trees. There was a main lodge building with cabin accommodations on each end and the communal dining hall in the middle, a kitchen cabin, 2 field cabins, a bath house, and the adorable "corn crib," a small cabin for 3.
Each of the 4 main cabins had a front porch with rocking chairs and a screened back porch, perfect for wasting the afternoon with a good book while drinking in the crisp fall air. The interior of the cabins was made up of one large room with several double sized bunk beds with cozy bedding, some handmade furniture like tables and benches, a wood stove, and a gas lantern for light.
There was also a shiny red cooler.
"What's that for?" I asked, knowing good and well that no one was packing in ice and cold beer.
"Varmints," was the quick reply.
Because we were in the backcountry, we still had critters to deal with. I thought being in a cabin eliminated the need to worry whether or not a bear was going to smell my toothpaste. Apparently this was not the case. We were told that, if we left “smelly” items out, we could expect bears, raccoons, possums, and mice to join us overnight.
Had I known that, I would have simply elected to bring no food whatsoever and brushed my teeth with soap. However, I naively thought a cabin eliminated the potential for a varmint infestation and I had an inordinate number of sugary, carb-y, chocolately things from Trader Joe’s hidden in my backpack.
Thankfully, we were given the cooler so we could store our goodies without any fear of waking up with a mouse on our forehead.
We got our backpacks unloaded, hanging our clothes on neat wooden pegs at the foot of our bunk and headed out to dinner. We barely made it in time.
We were greeted warmly by Booger, the resident dog.
He showed us to the dining hall which was warmly lit with lanterns and set beautifully with mismatched china and mason jars of fresh lemonade.
Dinner didn't disappoint: roasted pork loin, carrot soufflé, green bean casserole, macaroni & cheese, and soft yeast rolls. The food was served family style at communal tables and there was literally more than any of us could eat.
Charit Creek also serves beer and wine for a modest charge, or you can bring your own if you don't mind backpacking it in. I assumed Matt didn't mind and had loaded his pack generously with several full sized bottles.
For dessert, there was a decadent scratch made chocolate cake. I think it was better than my grandmother use to make.
The only thing that could appropriately follow a dinner that good was a nap by the fire pit.
It was so dark in the cabin and the bedding was so comfortable that we all slept late. The soft sound of rain on the tin roof didn't help matters. Eventually, we dragged ourselves out of bed and made some coffee on the camp stove.
We got a fire going in the wood stove and within minutes, our fire alarm was going off because the smoke was drifting into the cabin instead of drafting up the flue. It was so dark in there, we couldn’t see.
We felt foolish and sheepishly opened the doors. About that time, we heard the fire alarm go off in the cabin next door and instantly felt less stupid.
Despite many attempts, I have not yet figured out how to control the weather. Consequentially, I can’t seem to avoid the occasional vacation day that begins with a never-ending torrential downpour.
It was gray and raining when we woke up. We buried our disappointment under piles of pancakes with real maple syrup, quiche, bacon, and cheese grits.
For those of you that aren't from Dixie, I will explain what a "grit" is, although I have found that trying to explain grits to someone from up North is a lot like trying to explain why fish love riding bicycles.
Many people think grits are made from ground up bits of white corn. This is a lie spread by Communists and Yankees. Nothing as good as Grits (except moonshine) can be made from corn. In reality, that mysterious Manna that God rained down upon the Israelites during their time in the Sinai Desert was Grits.
Sure, some grit scholars might disagree with me and say that grits are actually made from dried corn or hominy that is ground and then cooked with water. Obviously, these people have never eaten proper grits or else they would know that they are actually carried down from heaven on angel's wings.
Grits are symbolic of the South, like cornbread, guns, sweet tea, NASCAR and SEC football. Furthermore, it's a sin, comparable to saying "you guys” instead of “y’all,” farting in church, or saying "Huh?" when references are made to the Vol Nation, to put sugar on grits. Grits are appropriately served with salt and butter, maybe the occasional smattering of cheese.
Now you know. Go make some grits. You can thank me later.
With our bellies full of buttery grit goodness and pancakes, there was nothing to do but cozy in and watch the rain from the back porch.
Around 10:00 a.m., the rain stopped and we decided to do some hiking to make us feel better about how many pancakes we had consumed at breakfast. We set off on the Slave Falls trail, planning to connect to the Twin Arches loop and then return to the Lodge. In all, it was about 9 miles of hiking and would get us back with a couple of hours of down time before dinner.
The rain had made the woods soft and quiet and the smell of earth and wet leaves hung heavy in the air.
I love hiking. I love the peacefulness of the woods. I love the sounds and smells. I love the time spent lost in my own thoughts or talking to Matt for hours on a trail.
What I DON’T love about hiking is when there is a “call of nature.” Thankfully, it was Matt that received the call, not me.
We were about 2 miles into the trail when Matt made it clear he had some “business” to attend to and that we should move on down the trail. John, Teresa, and I moved on down the trail for about 15 minutes. I assumed this was a simple stand-up event and thought Matt would have caught back up to us by then. Guessing it might have been more of a “squat and hold onto a tree branch” event, I told John and Teresa to go on and I would wait for Matt.
It had now been about 30 minutes since Matt peeled off. I was alternating between being worried that he had suffered a more serious “event” than anticipated and had to return to the Lodge and being annoyed that I was now stuck in the middle of the woods alone. I didn’t know if I should turn back, keep waiting, or try to catch up to John and Teresa.
After several more minutes, I realized the only logical explanation for that length of time was that Matt was indeed experiencing an unfortunate gastrointestinal episode, no doubt brought on by too much butter and lard, and had returned to camp. That being the case, he would probably prefer to be alone and my best option was to try to catch John and Teresa, who were now a good half hour ahead of me on the trail.
It was about 5 minutes into my solo walk that I started thinking about bears. I don’t usually think about bears in Tennessee like I do in Montana. However, Big South Fork is home to a thriving black bear population. Hiking alone is not a good idea in bear country. Bears are more likely to attack a solo hiker than a group.
I started walking faster.
I found myself looking at every shadow, every hill….What was that??? Did that shadow move?????
Before long, I was literally sprinting up the trail. I decided it was better to trip over a root and knock out my front teeth than to be mauled by a bear. Sure, I may never be able to eat corn on the cob again, but that's what knives are for.
I reached John and Teresa, heaving and sweating.
“What’s wrong?” they asked.
“Matt never showed up. He may be sick,” I said.
“He’s right behind you,” Teresa said.
Sure enough, I spotted his orange jacket about 50 feet behind me in the woods.
Trying to decide whether to be relieved or irritated, I settled on sympathetic, because Matt had obviously had a significantly worse experience than I had.
We made our way back to Slave Falls, which was severely anticlimactic. The fall was little more than a dribble.
The good news was that I had worked up a hearty appetite with all that worry and running, despite the mound of pancakes still in my belly.
We stopped at a clearing called “Jake’s Place” and had smoked trout wraps with cream cheese and dried bananas and mangoes.
After lunch, we completed our hike with the Twin Arches Loop, which was far more scenic than the Slave Falls trail had been. We managed to finish the hike without any more dramatic events.
We arrived back at Charit Creek Lodge around 3:00 p.m. Dinner was served at 5:00 p.m., so we had some down time for naps in the hammock, reading on the porch, or enjoying a glass of wine in a rocking chair.
We returned to the dining room for another spectacular meal: Meatloaf, fried Brussels sprouts, asparagus casserole, sweet potatoes, cornbread, and apple pie.
We wrapped up the night by the fire pit and retreated to our cabin for another cozy night’s sleep.
We enjoyed a leisurely morning with coffee, biscuits and gravy, sausage, and frittata.
Then it was time to pack up and hike out. The hike out was as beautiful as the hike in. Despite the fact that the hike out was ALL UPHILL and that my stomach was distended with a mountain of biscuits, it was a glorious morning.
As I threw my pack on my back, I was surprised to find that I did feel reawakened. I did feel peace. Charit Creek truly was a magical place and it exists as an oasis in the middle of the woods filled with crackling fires, warm friendship, and fluffy biscuits. My spirit did feel renewed.
And that’s not just the apple pie talking.