They’re talking like they are just sitting around, was what I was thinking as two smartly dressed runners breezed by me on the hiking trail. Meanwhile, I was huffing like I had just ran a marathon while I clung to the tree I had grabbed to swing out of the way for the runners on the one-person trail.
Finding my footing among the roots and rocks, I started back on the trail. To be fair, I thought, I’m a couple thousand feet above my normal elevation. I wasn’t at risk of altitude sickness setting in, but I was feeling a bit lightheaded and the air felt thin as my lungs gulped it in and out. Pulling out my phone, I checked the trail map and by the twists and turns figured out I was over halfway to the lookout. But I was only a quarter done with the hike since I’d have to retrace my steps to return to my car.
Earlier that day, I found myself with several hours to kill in eastern Tennessee. I was there on business and after wrapping up a meeting, getting my inbox back to zero, I discovered I had the better part of the afternoon free. I had heard from several people there were some nice hiking trails around. After some brief research on my phone I settled on tackling the Tip Top trail at Buffalo Mountain Park. (Although that night I’d find out that the other trail, White Rock, was the better of the two.)
The drive to the park was lovely. Somewhat sketchy warehouse streets gave way to ranch houses and horse pastures nestled in the valley. The road up to the park was a bit harrowing. My car moved at a crawl up the switchbacks and steep inclines. After years of driving around coastal Virginia I was not use to mountain roads. Parking, I was very glad the car I was driving had an emergency brake so I didn’t have to fear returning to an empty parking spot and my car stuck in a tree halfway down the slope.
The start of the trail wasn’t bad, a slowly rising trail the forked off to an overlook and the rest of the Tip Top trail. I decided to check out the overlook first. The view was breathtaking. With the clear weather I could see for miles. No matter how many times I fly or visit outlooks, I am always amazed at the miniature world spread out below. Seeing the patterns of fields and city blocks laid out below.
After taking several pictures and just gazing out for several minutes, I turned around and began the trek along the White Rock loop towards Tip Top.
I was passed by a trio of college girls in addition to the runners. Each time I stepped aside when I was able to. The trail was really only wide enough for one person, but a few places it widened to a person and a half.
Just as I felt myself beginning to sweat, the trail dipped down into a valley and passed under a small stream. The sun didn’t reach down into the valley and the stream cooled the air. I took a few moments to examine the trail, then hopped across the stream trying to stick to the drier rocks. Then it was back up and into the sun.
The trail kept going up and up. Even though I’d picked the easier of the two trails I could take to Tip Top, it began to get rockier and less a hike than a climb. I had to stop several times to catch my breath and my head began to pound a bit. I pulled out the map again, sure that I had to be close to the start of Tip Top trail. There was still quite a ways to go, and then a third of a mile to reach the outlook at the end of the Tip Top trail. Staring up at the rocks and shrubs, the sun beating down overhead, I made my decision. Time to turn back.
The hike back to the start of the trail got easier and easier. Even though it hadn’t been obvious on the way up, I began to realize how high the trail had gone and that I had been gradually moving up an decent incline. I came back upon the valley and the stream in less time than I thought, and then found myself at the fork leading to the outlook on one path and my car on the other. The sun hadn’t begun to set, so I climbed back to the outlook for one last look.