The big December snowstorm in Asheville left many residents without power or roads fit to drive on. And it wasn't the type of snow that's fun for a trail run, especially since simply getting to the trails can be a treacherous task. But after a few days of watching the news and waiting in vain for the right time to venture out, I made the dash to Bent Creek Experimental Forest, one of my favorite places in any weather.
When I pulled up at the Hard Times trailhead, I found it just as crowded as it normally is, despite the icy asphalt and the downed tree obstructing the entrance. Before getting out of the car, I assessed my gear situation: very old pair of Asics, short-sleeve Dri-FIT shirt and some running tights.
All fine, except I was really wishing I'd taken the advice of my Jus' Running shoe expert friend to get some new shoes. Mine must have a few thousand miles on their treads, and you should change shoes every 300 to 500 miles. I did have some slip-on snow spikes in the trunk that I could have pulled over my shoes for better traction, but I figured I'd probably be OK without them. And of course I was wishing for a long-sleeved shirt, coat, hat and gloves, but based on years of overdressing in the cold, I figured I'd warm up about a third of the way into the run.
As I jogged up Bent Creek Gap Road toward the Boyd Branch Trail, I passed more downed trees and started sliding around in my slick-soled shoes. The vehicles that occasionally travel this road had left tightly packed snow streaks, and after a series of sun-warming days and freezing nights, those streaks had become icy runways where I gained momentum and floundered like a wobbly-winged plane with no propeller. Thankfully, I soon reached the turnoff into the woods, where the route was less slick.
From Boyd Branch, my route took me back toward the direction I'd just come from but skirting the mountains by way of the Ingles Field Connector Trail. For what seemed a long, quiet winter, I was alone on the trail. The snow was less slicked down and slippery there, but it had a texture that made me imagine what it must be like to run through stale pie crust.
The farther up the mountain I climbed, the colder it got. My unsheltered arms were tomato red and covered in chill bumps. Even intermittent wind sprints didn't warm me up completely. Then, at the top of the hill, I spotted an orange toboggan hat — the kind hunters usually wear. Even though I grew up around guns and hunting, it always freaks me out to think I'm running precisely where others are busy sniping for live meat. I've seen some of these greenhorns out on the trail with their shotguns aimed at oncoming traffic, so the more I thought about cresting that mountain and finding a double barrel pointed right at me, the more my chill bumps grew. But when I reached the summit, my vision of Rambo with a fluorescent cap congealed into a kindly 70-year-old woman following her pouncing pooch around in the snow.
That marked the end of my solitude. I knew from the crowded parking area at the trailhead that a lot of folks were out here, but couldn't imagine where they would have been going. Now I saw cyclists heaving their loads around the icy mountain paths, runners out with their dogs, and even hikers strolling about in casual attire. I guess everyone was feeling the same cabin fever and just had to break out of the box.
When I finally popped out onto Ledford Branch, the logging road that leads back toward Hard Times, I was ready to get home. In truth, it had been a miserable run. It was far removed from the stereotypical, mythic snow journey amid puffy frozen clouds, cute furry sprites and candy-cane trees. My feet were wet, my body was shivering and my ankles felt twisted and strained.
About a half-mile from the car, I slowed to a walking cooldown, peering into the forest as far as I could see. It was so still that all I could hear were my own crunchy footsteps. For no reason at all, I strayed off the road a bit and stopped to just soak in the scene.
There was no charging bear or exotic bird perched in my line of sight. No one was nearby. It was more of a feeling, lasting only a sliver of a second. It took me to a place that only this sort of journey could: a solemn appreciation for being out here when Mother Nature is asleep. It's really a spectacle to watch her slumber, especially when you're alone. It made me drowsy in a dreamy sort of way, but I had at least another half-mile to go before I could rest.
Freelance writer Jonathan Poston lives near Asheville.