Monday, October 7, 2013

Day 116: Gooch Mountain Shelter to Springer Mountain

Miles today: 15.8
Miles total: 2185.9

Currently sitting in my cousin's apartment...

It's over. I'm still waiting for it to sink in. No more miles to do, no more planning for tomorrow. I'm relaxing, clean, wearing "real people clothes" at my cousin's apartment in the foothills of South Carolina. I don't know what I'm going to do today, or tomorrow, or anytime. It's a novel feeling, but I'm getting used to the idea. Let's talk about today.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Day 115: Wildcat Mountain to Gooch Mountain Shelter

Miles today: 22.4
Miles total: 2170.1

My last full day on the trail. I couldn't have asked for a better one. I slept in as late as I could, then took my sweet time getting ready so that I'd be hiking in the daylight. I hiked over some bumps and down to Neel Gap, home of Mountain Crossings. At this point, only thirty miles in, about 15 percent of northbounders ditch out on their thru-hike attempt. That number never ceases to baffle me. This spot is also noteworthy because the AT passes through an archway in the building. As I arrived, word got out that I was a southbounder. One of the employees gave me half of an avocado, my most unique trail magic. It surprisingly hit the spot. I looked through my food bag and found I barely needed any resupply food. I went inside the store just to look around and find snacks for the moment. What I did find was a Mountain House meal. These expensive just-add-water meals are a section-hiker staple, but at seven dollars or more a pop, thru-hikers tend to steer clear. Tonight is a night for celebration, so I grabbed a mac and cheese packet. The girl who gave me the avocado took my picture for Mountain Crossings' Facebook page (check it out!).

Back on the trail, I realized that this weekend day would be full of section and day hikers. This was a good thing though; I didn't have a ton of miles to cover. I had plenty of time to talk to anyone who had questions. That's lucky, because pretty much everyone who found out about my thru-hike had a lot to ask. I was rocking the celebrity status today. A group of women tentatively asked, "Are you just out for the day? Or..." When I told them, they shrieked in excitement and took pictures with me. "Make sure his legs are in it!" I answered questions and thanked them for the congratulations. Within a few hundred yards, I was chatting with some teenage section hikers. I eventually made it to the top of Blood Mountain, the high point in Georgia. The area between here and Springer is a popular hiking destination, and boy did I know it. I didn't really have anywhere to be, though. I had set a good pace and would be at the shelter with plenty of time to do my evening chores. On the backside of Blood Mountain, I saw a figure approach that I recognized: Brightside the girl! The closure of the Smokies had forced her to flip down to Springer and start north, hoping the park would be open by the time she approached from the south. We caught up on thru-hiker happenings since we saw each other in Pearisburg, VA. She also warned me of a wasp's nest near the trail ahead. I am upset that the government shutdown is actually affecting us thru-hikers, who are almost as off-the-grid as you can get, but it was great to see Brightside again. I hiked a bit down the trail and of course didn't see the hive, getting stung on my calf. No big deal though. It's just a nuisance.

Climbing down from Big Cedar Mountain, I caught up to a girl who was hiking at a good clip, but still a bit slower than me. I came up behind her, but she didn't yield. She just picked up the pace a little. I didn't know if it was an issue of pride for her or if she thought I was going to assault her, but I backed off so I couldn't be called a creeper. I pulled up to the shelter around 5:30, and it has a comfortable number of nice people hanging around. I like that I won't be alone on my last night, but it's also nice not to walk up to an overflowing shelter. I'm just under sixteen miles from the end. Looks like I'll beat that dingus tropical storm after all! That would mean my last 350 miles were rain-free! Until tomorrow, my friends.


Pictures: Mountain sunrise; Neel Gap; trail passing through a building.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Day 114: Hiawassee, GA to Wildcat Mountain

Miles today: 31.4
Miles total: 2147.7

Currently laying in my tent...

My brain was up and humming early this morning, preventing me from sleeping in at all. I took this as a sign that today should be productive. I heated up the variety of microwavable breakfast foods that I had picked up at the grocery store yesterday. Not bad, I concluded. Kinda wish I had figured out this whole microwave scene sooner! I walked to the edge of town and stuck out my thumb as I backpedaled a little bit. Soon enough, a guy in a pickup truck pulled over. This time, I got to sit in the cab. Surprisingly enough, he was a former college professor and molecular virologist. Not someone you expect to pick you up in "Deliverance Country", as they sometimes call it. He was great, going out of his way to get me to the trailhead. This trail is still magical, that's for sure. No surprise, I was met with a climb away from the road. My legs were fresh from yesterday so these piddly ups and downs were alright with me.

A couple thousand-foot climbs and drops brought me to Unicoi Gap, out of which I made my last real climb of the day. The next seven or so miles seemed to fly by, and I was at Low Gap Shelter, my intended endpoint, waaaay too early. I didn't want to just sit around and think about how excited I was, so it was a no-brainer to push on after a break and a water refill. Again, I put in headphones to drown out my own thoughts. A little excitement is fun and healthy, but I crossed that line a while ago. I think the same thoughts over and over: I'll be there so soon! Tonight I sleep out here somewhere, then tomorrow it's Neel Gap for resupply and sleeping at Gooch Mountain Shelter, then the next day it's Springer! Wait, that's not that soon. How can I wait that long? It's so long! AHHH!!! I attempted to stop the cycle with a few tunes. They helped for a while, but soon I found myself getting more and more excited, to the point of having physical symptoms. If I stopped walking I would rub my hair crazily. I guess excitement isn't exactly the right description. To tell the truth, there is no way to describe what I'm feeling. It sometimes feels incredibly sad, and other times it feels jubilant. It's like one emotion that looks different when the light hits it from different angles. My brain is having trouble processing this monumental achievement on the horizon, and it's short-circuiting. Towards the end of the day, I felt like I was going to burst. I was just hiking along on a typical, smooth section of trail, when all of a sudden I slowed down. I felt like I was being overtaken by it, but I didn't know what was happening. I found myself dropping to one knee, sniffling then sobbing. But what for? I couldn't figure it out. I kept hiking while blubbering (I am all about efficiency) for a couple minutes until I stopped the waterworks. I felt much better after the outburst. Still don't really know what that was all about.

Pretty exhausted from a long day and from my recent episode, I was ready to turn in. The next shelter I came to was 1.2 miles off the trail. I decided that the extra mileage defeated the convenience of a shelter, so I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I didn't have to look long before I found a great spot on top of Wildcat Mountain. For some reason the quiet up here doesn't bother me like it usually does when I tent. Who knows, maybe I like the evening bugs all singing to me. I'm not complaining, man.


Picture: last time tenting.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Day 113: Standing Indian Shelter to Hiawassee, GA

Miles today: 16.7
Miles total: 2116.3

Currently laying in my bed at Hiawassee Budget Inn...

With today being my very last town day on the trail, I got all excited and was hiking by 6. I quickly decided that this would also be my last day of hiking before sunrise. It finally sunk in that hiking in the dark is no fun. Slow going, no scenery, no sun to buoy my spirits...forget it. It made sense today because every minute earlier that I started meant more time in town. So I sucked it up as I tried to roll my ankles on all the little rocks and made a few minor climbs before it got light. I said good riddance to the headlamp and  continued on as the sun cast its light over the adjacent ridge prior to its full arrival. Little ups and downs characterized the day. Around eight miles in, I went on high alert for the NC/GA border sign. As with all things on the trail, I thought I missed it until I walked right up to it. The sign is old, small, and unassuming, but I stopped to have second breakfast on some nearby rocks.  I allowed the moment to sink in. There are no more state borders to cross, no more hundred-mile markers to pass, nothing in between. All that's left is Springer Mountain. Sure, there's a quick on-trail resupply at Neel's Gap in a couple days, but that's it. The whole trail has been about me meeting intermediate goals because the overall challenge was daunting and massive. I don't know when, but somewhere along the line it started to sink in that the end was near and that I could focus on the whole picture. Now that I have, I've gone even crazier than I thought possible. I'm totally possessed by finishing. It's painful. I wish I could think about other things, but that's just the reality. My Springer Fever has reached its final unbearable stage.

I headed over Georgia's famous little, steep climbs and soon enough I was at US 76. I got a hitch from maybe the fifth car to drive by. Luckily, it was a pickup and I just climbed into the bed for the eleven-mile slog down into Hiawassee. I was uncomfortable with the idea of stinking up the cabin of a car for that amount of time. Even better, I got an air bath on this comfortable, sunny day. They dropped me off right in front of the Subway, and I got busy eating lunch. I checked in at the Budget Inn next door, then walked up to the grocery store for a resupply. I overbought as I always do, and now I'm struggling to eat all the food I have. Not a bad problem to have. The rest of my day consisted of laying in bed and occupying my mind with TV until it was time to go back over to Subway for Round 2. I'm such a bum. Anyways, three more hiking days after today. And they honestly can't come soon enough. The butterflies in my stomach aren't leaving any room for food!!


Pictures: yeah that is really the name of that trail; twisty tree; the last state border ever.

Day 112: Siler Bald Shelter to Standing Indian Shelter

Miles today: 27.7
Miles total: 2099.6

Currently laying in the shelter...

Pretty much your standard trail day. I was on the road by 7 and headed downhill for about four miles. I climbed up and over some unnamed mountain, but what struck me was how well-graded the climb was. It wasn't even a challenge. The rest of the day proved to be the same way, with really gradual climbs and descents that made for easy cruising. My morning snack was at Rock Gap Shelter, where the trees were inexplicably dripping the whole time I was there. There hasn't been any rain lately and it wasn't a hazy morning, so I really can't explain it. The drippiness contributed to the run-down look of the shelter, but it was a good place to sit and inhale calories. Once on the trail again, I got warnings from two different section hikers about the rocks on Albert Mountain. One claimed it was the steepest and rockiest section of the trail that he'd ever seen. The other had used the bypass trail to skip the peak all together. I knew I'd be sticking with the AT's route, but I was a little curious. I made the climb without incident and as pleased to find a fire tower. I liked the moment because I got a great view and this summit marked only 100 miles left on my trip. It's a good thing too, because I'm just about ready to be done. I think it's a phenomenon similar to how you feel when you have to go to the bathroom really bad and you're almost to the toilet. You could wait longer, but it doesn't feel like it. That comparison really does no justice to the AT. Anyway, I found those rocks on the backside of Albert Mountain, but they only lasted for a quarter mile. I sighed and continued on my smooth sailing.

My stop for Second Lunch was at Carter Gap Shelter, which immediately preceded a long (but very easy) walk over Standing Indian Mountain. My mind had been wandering too much to the finish line, so I played some music again to drown it out. Today we had Arcade Fire followed by Bon Iver's Bonnaroo set. That got me to within ten minutes of the shelter, which peased Lord Rooster immensely. I got water, located the privy for the morning, and now I'm in my bag after having dinner. Not much else to do but daydream about going into Hiawassee tomorrow and fall asleep! Maybe I'll find a way to have one more hotel stay. Hmmm...


Pictures: 100-miles-to-go celebration on a fire tower; my last 5000-footer.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Day 111: Nantahala Outdoor Center to Siler Bald Shelter

Miles today: 23.3
Miles total: 2071.9

Currently sitting at the picnic table...

After arriving at the NOC so late last night, I permitted myself time to sleep in. I didn't even wake up once until 7, and even then I went back to sleep. There was no point in getting an early start; nothing around there opened until 9 AM. I thought I might be able to do laundry early, but the only detergent available was from the outfitter and I didn't have quarters for the machine anyway. It was actually really nice to take my time getting ready in the morning without every second counting. I took the time to make coffee and hang out in the dining room before moseying over to the main office. I was still early, so I sat outside the outfitter like a puppy. The guy in charge explained that they were training someone and that they would be late opening up. I ran across the street to the general store to buy most of my food before checking back in. By that time, the outfitter was open. I waited (I hope patiently) as the main guy explained to the trainee how to ring me up as well as every other possible aspect of the checkout computer. By the time I had my laundry started, it was 9:30. The silver lining here was that I had found a couple off delicious-looking frozen burritos in the general store, so I had plenty of time to microwave and savor them. I also allotted a healthy amount of time to yelling at the washing machine to be done. By the time I had changed into my dry clothes, it was almost 11. I consoled myself with the thought that I wouldn't get done any later than last night. I hiked into the woods from the NOC feeling a little bit sad that I couldn't have stayed longer. It seems like a really cool place, not just for hikers but for kayakers and fisherman and apparently for underwater rescue teams. I saw them practicing while wearing wetsuits.

I started off with my last big climb of the whole trip. It's getting a little sad to recognize I'm doing things for the last time. Nostalgia usually hits me pretty hard; just a forewarning. There wasn't much to say about the day. I hiked quickly to beat nightfall this time, stopping only for lunch at Cold Spring Shelter. After that, I popped in my ear buds for some music. First it was Coldplay since I'd had a few of their songs stuck in my head for a while. That was over pretty quickly, and I don't like reaching back for my phone to pick out new music all the time, so I chose to listen to Radiohead's 2.5 hour Bonnaroo set from last year. I wasn't disappointed, and I have no idea where the time went. I was up around 5000 feet quite a bit today, a luxury I won't enjoy for much longer. In fact, a day hiker on Wayah Bald thought I might have been standing on the highest point for the rest of the trail. I think he was right. Georgia's highest point, Blood Mountain, is only around 4400 feet. It's all downhill from here, right?? Wrong. Radiohead closed their set right as I embarked on the climb up to Siler Bald. It was really gentle, a kind gesture by the trail at the end of my day. The shelter unfortunately lies a good distance off the AT...miles I don't get credit for. I grumbled as I walked down the side trail. But there are things to be happy about, like having only 114 miles to go! I'm projecting a Sunday finish unless I take a zero or cut a day short. Five days of hiking remain...


Pictures: stuff around the NOC; a couple views from a very worthwhile trip up a lookout tower.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 110: Fontana Village, NC to Nantahala Outdoor Center

Miles today: 27.3
Miles total: 2048.6

Currently sitting in the common area's kitchen...

Late start today! I decided that I didn't really care how far I got today and that I would join Mercury and Danko for a farewell breakfast. Those two have plans to finish on the 9th, which will put their average pace at a leisurely 16.5 miles per day. I'm not tied to a date yet, so I'm going to let my antsy self keep boogying on down the trail. By the time I had said goodbye and was on the road, it was almost 9:30. I had originally thought I might make it to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) tonight, but I put that idea to bed. Unwilling to rely on a hitch, I walked the two road miles to the trail. The first bit was a climb out of the gap. The pressure on my right big toe was pretty severe today, so I took a break to finally give myself that pedicure. I cut the dead part of the nail off, which was basically the whole thing. It had started behaving like a foreign body and was decimating my cuticle. With my nail looking disgusting but fabulous, I turned back up the trail. I had solved the problem, so today's hike went much more smoothly than I had expected. I traversed the ups and downs, of which there were many, with gusto. I stopped at Brown Fork Gap Shelter to have lunch and pulled my phone out of my bag. Service! I decided that if the NOC could accommodate my arriving late, I would consider pushing on tonight. I made the call, and it came down to me having to make a reservation (read: pay for my stay ahead of time) in order to arrive after 6. I hesitated, then went for it. Walking out of the shelter, I realized what I had done. I wouldn't get there until 8, even if I didn't stop. There wasn't a deadline other than the setting sun, but it just seemed so late.

I started to hustle, big time. I ran into a couple of section hikers who were, of course, chatty, then I rocketed off. I was impressed by my pace even as I made the climb up to Cheoah Bald, which was alright as balds go. I took a picture but hurried on to conserve daylight. After Cheoah, it was almost all downhill to the NOC. I tried to hurry within reason, not wanting to risk injury just to save two minutes. I finally had to give in and strap on my headlight, which I didn't want to do because that meant opening up my bag. The silver lining to this ordeal was that I got to root around in my food bag, retrieving an apple fritter thing I had bought in Fontana. Yummy. I soon heard the whoosh of the Nantahala River and saw the twinkle of the lights from the NOC, allowing me to breath a sigh of relief. I was there! I grabbed my check-in packet and slogged back across the bridge to my bunkhouse. I wish I had gotten here during the day; it looks like a really cool place. I still have to do laundry and resupply in the morning, so I'll get to check it out in more detail. I will report findings on the other side.


Picture: Cheoah Bald overlooking the Nantahala Gorge.

Day 109: Derrick Knob Shelter to Fontana Village, NC

Miles today: 24.2
Miles total: 2021.3

Currently sitting at the Fontana Lodge computer...

This was a little bit of a bittersweet day. On the one hand, we headed out of the Smokies and, in doing so, completed the last major challenge of the trail. On the other hand, there are no more big challenges so now we're just...hiking. And the Smokies were really beautiful, which more than made up for having to buy a permit to hike there. I started off the day without my elevation profile because it was the one I left behind yesterday, so I was "blind" for about three miles. When I passed a spring, the next page in my guidebook let me know that I had crossed the 2000-mile mark. What? I caught up with Danko as he sat on a rock that was etched with the number 2000. We cheered, took pictures, the whole deal. I remember seeing the number two thousand when I was in Maine. It overwhelmed me that I had so far to go. Today I was on the other side and still couldn't comprehend it. When did all these miles pile up? Wasn't I just in New Jersey? I didn't try to figure it out; I just kept walking. We realized that we had crossed the mountain that all the section hikers had warned us about...guess it wasn't that bad! With the challenges of the morning complete, we had a gently downhill walk for the rest of the day. I let Danko go ahead as I purified some water and sat quietly in the misty woods. I kind of expected to see a unicorn, but no luck today.

I came out of the woods and was in a clearing with a shelter. There was Mercury, contently eating breakfast. I hit the breaks to say hi. Danko had stopped as well. We shot the breeze for at least 45 minutes, one of my longest unscheduled break in recent history. Plans definitely go by the wayside when there's a chance for real southbounder friendship time. The three of us took off in turn but were soon hiking in a line, continuing the conversation. It blew my mind: southbounders number 3, 4, and 5 were playing follow the leader. How was I so lucky? Mercury stopped for water, so Danko and I continued on our own, leaving Mercury to do his own thing as he is wont to do. I really couldn't fathom how the trail could go downhill for seven miles, but lo and behold it found a way. I kept rolling my ankle all day long. It started with a bad roll in a grassy meadow, then it was weak after that. The tendons are strong, but it's still painful in the moment and quite annoying. It kept happening when I lost focus on a downhill. Expletives galore!!

I caught Danko as he was putting his permit for the Smokies in the little box at the end of the park. Turns out I printed the wrong thing, so I had nothing to put in there. I might as well have not gotten one in the first place! We walked the road for a mile until we crossed Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the east. NC has it all: the tallest mountain and the tallest dam. What more could a boy ask for? We stopped at the Fontana Dam Shelter, nicknamed the Fontana Hilton because it's big, new, and has showers. We wanted a hot meal and a real bed in town, so we walked on to NC 28. Not many cars were coming by, so we started walking towards Fontana Village. Luckily a pickup brought us to town, just in time to catch the general store before it closed. The lady at the general store then called a guy from maintenance to pick us up and drive us the half-mile to the lodge. Wow. We got checked in (at the Hiker Rate, no less) and enjoyed our comfortable room. While we were at dinner, Mercury surprised us! He had hiked the road into town after trying to catch back up with us all day. He joined us and all was well with the world. The IPA sitting in front of me didn't hurt things, either.


Pictures: ...and I would walk 185.9 more; the permit box; Fontana Dam.

Day 108: Peck's Corner Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter

Miles today: 28.6
Miles total: 1997.3

Currently laying in the loft...

The Smokies continue to test me. After a late start due to yesterday's late end (do you see how this sort of behavior propagates?), I used the privy and set off. I realized pretty early on that I had left my elevation profile for the day back at the shelter somewhere. I would be flying blind! It wasn't really a big deal; there are directional signs throughout the park with mileages listed, and it's only for one day. I climbed out of the fog and had some pretty surreal views of the sunrise over a sea of clouds. I was moving slowly, but I do every morning. After some ridge walking with drop-offs on either side, I arrived at Icewater Spring Shelter. It's a popular spot because it's between Charlie's Bunion (an exposed rock face) and Newfound Gap. This brings a lot of day hikers out. I met a few on my way to the shelter, and a few more as I snacked. Danko stopped in to snack as well, and we shared our sluggish feelings. It's been a tough couple of days! I took off and headed towards Newfound Gap, the access point for basically any and all tourist activity in the area. Gatlinburg is 15 miles west if that helps you imagine the typical visitor. Like a salmon swimming upstream, I made my way through a torrent of hikers going up to the Bunion. I began greeting some as I normally would, but then I got a little weird. That usually meant laughing maniacally at whatever their response was. I'll never see them again! I crossed the gap and went through a busy parking lot. I avoided getting run over and went on my way.

From Newfound Gap, I had a steady but not-too-difficult climb up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the whole trail. There were a lot of rock steps, so I got a different kind of workout than I'm accustomed to. I met the ridge runner whom I had seen near Hampton, TN, which was cool. Other than that, I just put my head down and climbed. The reward was not that great, as the summit was in a cloud. I hung out at the observatory tower for a while, hoping something would change. No luck. Down the mountain I went, with my legs feeling pretty darn tired. I stopped for water and a quick rest at Siler's Bald Shelter, where the banality of the conversation almost drove me insane. I cut my break short. My feet were the big complainers today, especially a couple of my toes. My sock has worn through in one spot, allowing my poor little pinky toe to get rubbed raw. Also, my big toe is in the process of losing a nail, but it isn't going as smoothly as I had hoped. This made for a looooong 5.5 miles to end the day as well as adding a touch of red to my yellow shoes. But it's all good! I made it and kicked back at the shelter, which was luckily not entirely full. And I survived the rounds of section hiker banter, so it's a good night. The end of the Smokies tomorrow!


Pictures: Charlie's Bunion; Clingmans Dome tower; me posing with the view on Clingmans Dome.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Day 107: Standing Bear Hostel to Peck's Corner Shelter

Miles today: 23.6
Miles total: 1968.7

Currently laying in the shelter...

Well, the Smokies seem to be my last real test. They tested me today, alright. Danko and I enjoyed a nice, late start after the marathon day yesterday. Danko had to get his permit for the Smokies still, so we waited until Curtis, the owner of Standing Bear, showed up. With all our ducks in a row, we made the remaining descent into Davenport Gap. We crossed under I-40, just another place where I had crossed the AT in the past without knowing it. The elevation was 1400 feet, and we knew what came next. Up into the Smokies, past Davenport Gap Shelter we climbed. About halfway up our big climb (3.5 miles in), we stopped for a break. We agreed that maybe yesterday had taken a bit out of us. We took off again at our own paces, and soon I passed Danko as he sat on a tall boulder in the sun. I finally got up to Mount Cammerer at 5000 feet and got a break. Down to Cosby Knob Shelter I went, the site of a much-needed break. I zoned out as I made my PB&J tortilla. I was kind of zoned out all afternoon. The trail had kicked my butt and was continuing to do so.

I walked the gradual incline up another 1400 feet or so to my true high point of the day, and of the trail so far for that matter, Mount Guyot. The woods turned back into the sub-alpine forest with pine trees really prevalent. It changed the whole look of the trail too. It reminded me of the Forbidden Forest from Harry Potter. I stopped at Tri-Corner Knob to recharge my battery, but came upon an almost-full shelter already. I was overwhelmed by the amount of gear. I managed to find a place to sit down and eat. A couple of guys on a 4-day hike told me about the upcoming difficulties on the trail, to which I half-listened, which is more than I can sometimes say. I headed on sooner than I had expected, worrying about a potentially crowded shelter ahead and thinking about how the National Parks are managed. I wondered if the Smokies had not been designated a National Park, would so many people come out to hike here? There are plenty of beautiful sections of trail elsewhere that don't get nearly as much foot traffic. Could it be that in attempting to preserve this amazing place that we are doing it in somehow? Bear are everywhere, to an unnatural extent. Wild boars run rampant, a by-product of introducing them a long time ago as an animal to hunt. Red wolves were later introduced to hunt down some unwanted smaller animals. I think we might be better off leaving things alone. That being said, this has been one of my favorite areas to walk through, and it is a very unique ecosystem that needs to be protected somehow. The Smokies are really a rainforest, so our three-day hurried trip is designed to avoid that trademark rain. Day one was a success! Days two and three are looking good. I would rather not have to deal with cold, windy, rainy days when I am at the highest point on the whole AT, but hey, that's just a personal preference.


Pictures: Pine trees popping up amongst the hardwoods; the blurry trail up high; late-afternoon view.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Day 106: Hot Springs, NC to Standing Bear Hostel

Miles today: 33.1
Miles total: 1945.1

Currently sitting in a bunk at Standing Bear...

This was a full day. Danko and I left independently from Elmer's around 7, but I stopped at the first shelter for some privy action. He was confused how I ended up behind him when I caught him on a break. We had done a 1000-foot climb out of Hot Springs, and now we had a 2000-foot climb to the top of Bluff Mountain. I let him go first since my legs were still adjusting to the day. It always takes a little while to get me going. The climb ended up not being bad at all, and soon I took a break at Walnut Mountain Shelter. I had passed Danko en route, so he came up a bit later. "Let's just keep going, man," he said. I asked him what he meant and he talked about getting to Standing Bear, twenty miles from where we stood at that moment. I called the hostel to see if it would be alright if we came in late (well, hiker-late). We got the green light and decided to go for it. Danko excitedly took off to get more water.

The next stretch was an extremely gradual ascent and descent of Max Patch Mountain, another bald one. This stretch was especially important for me because it was the first place that I ever walked the trail. I stopped at the first shelter I had ever seen. I walked through the fences I remembered. I whisked through the most intense rhododendron tunnel I have yet to see on the trail. It was just as I had it in my head. After a brief and accidental detour, I caught up with Danko on Max Patch. The haze had lifted and we had a good 360-degree view. We ventured guesses on which mountains were the Smokies. After snack time, we headed down off Max Patch and out of the area I had visited during college. It had been a little emotional for me to return to the spot where I was first inspired to undertake a thru-hike. Our legs were feeling good though, and those miles weren't going to hike themselves. We dropped into a valley and were faced with the last climb of the day: Snowbird Mountain. We groaned and went to it. Again, it turned out to be not that bad. Here was an FAA tower on top as well as more good views.

The last 4.4 miles of the day would all be downhill. I was worried, but didn't need to be; my legs rose to the occasion. I adapted my downhill style at times into a sort of half-job with trekking pole assistance. This really reduced the stress on my joints and shins, making the trip down a breeze. It also increased my pace, so it was all good. I sat down by the road to wait for Danko, then we walked up to the hostel together. It's a really neat spot with all-wooden buildings and a creek running through. Rocket showed us around, then we took to gorging ourselves until we were able to realize how tired we were. What a day. Physically and emotionally draining, but I feel no pain other than fatigue. Tomorrow begins our attempt at a three-day traverse of the Smokies. It begins with a monster climb out of Davenport Gap, but I know we've got what it takes.


Pictures: my very first shelter from back in '10; Max Patch; Snowbird Mountain.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 105: Zero in Hot Springs, NC

Miles today: 0.0
Miles total: 1912.0

Currently sitting in Elmer's Sunnybank Hostel...

Feeling sort of run-down after the last stretch of trail, I let myself sleep in this morning. I heard the drizzling rain outside already, and my mind wandered to the forecast for all-day rain. On the day I'm supposed to go across Max Patch, the first spot I ever walked on the trail in my whole life? Nope, I decided I was taking a zero. Danko felt the same way, so my resolve got even stronger. But what would we do all day? The lounge had been closed off as a private room. I could only assume we'd go insane. We decided to head on over to the other hostel in town, Elmer's. Once we got there, we knew we had made the right choice. Elmer has run this historic hostel for over 35 years. It's in a historic house, and it had everything we needed. A TV for movies, a library full of books, and comfy beds. We were all set. We settled in and read before going about our normal town business of eating and laying around some more. With most of our chores done from yesterday, all that was left was to recharge. Like most rest days, this one was helpful to let me reflect on how far I've come and too get me excited about the challenges up ahead.  Max Patch and the Smokies...then I'm home free! One last rest before the final two-week push seems like it was the perfect idea. I'm antsy to finish, but now I'm well-rested too. I would write more, but I really didn't do much today outside of eating. I also drank a beer from a brewery in nearby Asheville: Highland's oatmeal porter, an old favorite. I'm off early tomorrow and once again find myself scheming a higher-mileage alternate plan. Hmmm....


Picture: the quaint Sunnybank Inn.

Day 104: Little Laurel Shelter to Hot Springs, NC

Miles today: 19.6
Miles total: 1912.0

Currently sitting in the Hot Springs library...

After yesterday's brutal mileage, I thought I had earned an extra hour of sleep. Believe it or not, I find it harder to sleep after a tough day than after an easy one. It's like I'm so exhausted that I can't sleep. Eventually, sleep did come, and I was awakened by my alarm in the moonlit pre-dawn. Soon, Danko and the two section hikers were rustling around as well. I set my gear out on the picnic table to get ready, with the moon making my headlamp less than necessary. I got going in almost record time, hobbling farther down the descent that I began yesterday. I wasn't exactly in peak form, but I felt remarkably good considering what I went through yesterday. At a road crossing, I walked off the trail a bit to see if the nearby convenience store was open. It wasn't, so I went ahead to trudge up the 1000-foot climb ahead. It was over soon, and  a couple of smaller climbs brought me up to Spring Mountain Shelter. No, not Springer Mountain, but close. Ahead, someone yelled hello and asked if there was water at Jones Gap (the road crossing). After a second, it clicked that this tall person was Danko. He had passed me when I stopped at the road without my noticing. We hung out for a bit, then in an uncharacteristic move for both of us, we decided to hike together for the remaining 11 miles into the town of Hot Springs. I let Danko lead. It was a good thing, too, because he took off at a pace that I only match on my good days. In his wake, however, I was able to keep up. We chatted as we went, talking about music, reasons for hiking, home lives, and northbounder gossip. We concluded that southbound was the right way to go. Perhaps we are a little biased after 1900 miles.

We followed rocky switchbacks, catching views of the French Broad River and Hot Springs below. The miles had flown by with company, and we had made awesome time. We loped across the bridge into town and  took in the sights. This is another trail town that I previously visited. In fact, I own a tie-dye shirt from Hot Springs' own Bluff Mountain Outfitters. Danko and I exchanged phone numbers and headed off in our own directions, planning to meet up later. I hit the library and did my normal internet trolling; he went to the post office and outfitter. We met up again at the Laughing Heart Lodge, where we found two girls who have been southbounding from Pennsylvania. Another surprise was finding Mercury. I had never met the guy, just heard legends from other hikers and read his shelter log entries. Three-time Pacific Crest Trail hiker. Wakes up early and hikes late. His logbook entries ooze sageness. So when I met the short older guy with a big grin and goofy laugh, I was  pretty surprised. Not what I expected, but that's not a bad thing at all. We talked for a while, but he was off into the woods again. There are still mileage goals to be met. Before I went back into the hostel, he stopped me. "Everyone's been saying it to me, but now I get to say it to you. You're number one, man! No one out here started later than you. You're the fastest!" I assured him that being first had never really been my intention, but I was pretty flattered nonetheless.
After a shower, Danko and I went to the laundromat, where I sat around in my rain gear as my stinky hiking clothes went through their cycles. Later, we met up with the Pennsylvania girls, Hummingbird and Moose on the Loose, for dinner at the Smoky Mountain Diner. It was nice to have an audience that laughed at my jokes, good and bad, to reassure me that I am the funniest person. We were excited to watch movies back at Laughing Heart, but the lounge area had been rented out as a private room!! Despondent, we all went back to our own quarters to twiddle our thumbs and complain about being bored. But that's what towns are for: getting you bored enough with real life to hit the trail even harder!


Pictures: Hot Springs from above; Danko on the bridge into town; official AT community.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 103: Bald Mountain Shelter to Little Laurel Shelter

Miles today: 31.6
Miles total: 1892.4

Currently laying in the shelter...

The motivation of being close to town will do a lot to you. Take, for instance, my mileage today. I am not a 30-mile-a-day guy, but when it means I have a shorter walk into town in the morning, ah yes, I will put in a few more miles at the end of the day. To secure my chances of doing so, I got up early to one of those cold mornings that makes your sleeping bag feel soooo nice. The chill was in the air at 5000 feet, but I got moving nonetheless. I wasn't feeling on top of my game, so I decided I would visit the diner that my guide talked about at the bottom of the hill. The road to hitch on, however, had exactly zero cars travel it while I waited. Deflated, I opened up my food bag and went to town. I felt much better after my feast, and I still never saw a car go by. Also, I would have been trying to hitch in the wrong direction anyway. That's alright. A re-energized Rooster hit the trail and flew the next 11 miles to Flint Mountain Shelter. On the way, I met section hikers who alerted me to the presence of two southbounders I've been following, Danko and Mercury. They were both somewhere in the next 20 miles. Based on where Danko started the day, I figured I could catch him if I did the big miles I had in my back pocket. With that in mind, I kept my break short on time but large on calories and forged on.

I had a big climb, but the trail after that would be a ridge walk, which comforted me. As usual, the climb was over before I knew it, and I was walking a gravel road. By 3:40, I was at Jerry Cabin Shelter. The fellow who was already there seemed chatty, which is a good trait in moderation. He overdid it a bit, which made my decision easy: I was heading on. I got some water and bid him farewell. A mile and a half of the trail ahead were supposed to be rocky, but I attacked them without fear, getting nostalgic for Maine all the while. It was worth it to do this section during the day because it afforded good views of the surrounding mountains, which lacked any overwhelming signs of human development. How nice! The rock walk was over soon, and I was on flat ground once again. I was excited to walk through something called "Jones Meadow", but there was no meadow to be found. I suppose those who named it got a little creative license. Up to Camp Creek Bald (which was not bald), then I headed down to the shelter. Very steeply down. My legs cried out. They turned to jello, but there was no pain. I just wanted to be done. Soon enough I was, after plenty of whining. I stumbled coming in to the shelter, which caught the attention of the guy sitting at the picnic table. The man, the myth, the legend: Danko. After reading his shelter entries for so long, I finally put a face to the name. He's really nice, as people tend to be out here, and he plans to hit Hot Springs tomorrow. Not only that, but we suspect we'll find Mercury there as well. Southbounder party! The last time I had one of these was in Andover, Maine, as far as I can remember.


Picture: this is why you don't take the trail to bypass the rocks.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Day 102: Erwin, TN to Bald Mountain Shelter

Miles today: 25.2
Miles total: 1860.8

I started today by bidding adieu to the two section hikers at Uncle Johnny's, T-Rex and Dad. After that, it was time to head back up to the trailhead at 395. It was downhill all the way into town, making me think maybe I could have done it last night. But that would have been about 35 miles on the day, so maybe not. I picked up my resupply and put it in my pack, making it oh so much heavier. Lately, I've been really noticing the difference between a light-food pack and a full pack. This one hit hard, because I had a big climb right out of town. My legs were protesting, but I'm past the point of listening to them. They will get me where I want to go. No point arguing. I stopped at No Business Knob Shelter for a standard snack break. It was one of the standard Tennessee jobs, with cinder block walls and a dilapidated wood floor. Lots of graffiti, kind of a prison feeling. Needless to say, I was glad to move on.

A gradual climb, a drop, a steep climb, a drop. Why couldn't I just keep the elelevation that I had accumulated? By the time the day was over, I had done approximately 5000 feet of climbing. Bleh. I really got my butt kicked today for the first time in a while. I've gotten to wondering if a zero in Hot Springs is on my horizon. On another note, when I crossed US Highway 19 West, I entered the domain of the Carolina Mountain Club, leaving that of the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club. What does this mean for me? I have no idea. There's a privy at this shelter, though, so that's a start. All the other Tennessee shelters had a distinct lack thereof, making me wonder where to do my business. I'll be living large tomorrow morning! And I'm high up, around 5000 feet, so I can expect a cool night. On top of that, my weather forecast for the Smokies looks great! Please don't let it change! Life is looking good for this barnyard animal.


Pictures: sun returns to the trail; this is what a piped spring looks like, and it's a good thing to have.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Day 101: Roan High Knob Shelter to Erwin, TN

Miles today: 25.5
Miles total: 1835.6

Currently sitting at the Uncle Johnny's Hostel computer...

The rain had to come at some point. This morning, I told Pamola that he had been good to me up to this point and that he could bring on his worst. I don't think it really was his worst, but it was a comparatively dreary day. I got going early from the Knob, taking a side trail to a parking area with restrooms and a drinking fountain. Last night, the piped spring had been nothing more than a trickle, so I just used what water I had from the day to make dinner and have a sip before bed. That wasn't enough, so I found myself scooping water from a pool at 8 PM last night. With my thirst quenched, I could finally go to sleep. Well, after eating another brownie. Anyways, I took the opportunity to get water from a pure source, aka the water fountain, as well as to use the immaculate facilities. Back on the trail, I had some slow going over rocks near the summit, but I found my stride as I descended through the warm fog and winds. The winds only picked up as I got to Clyde Smith Shelter, where it darkened and I was sure it would rain. I put on my rain jacket after my break and forged ahead, daring the rain to start. It immediately did, albeit with tiny, sporadic drops. I got impatient and asked for more, since my rain jacket tends to make me too warm in the absence of precipitation. Only a little more rain followed, so I had to take it off. The rain picked up, but so did my pace. I fell into the perfect equilibrium of exertion and coolness. A strong wind blew from left to right almost the entire rest of the way. Soon I ran in to a group of students from a small school starting a five-day backpacking trip. I talked to their chaperone and advised him against reading my shelter log entry from Roan High Knob. The group gave me a banana and relieved me of my trash, so I thought they were pretty cool.

On a day that I thought would be slow going, I was hiking out of my mind. I covered six miles in an hour and a half and was at the next shelter in approximately no time. Rain will do that. I was in a battle to stay warm without layering up, so it was more like a game than a hike. I found that I rarely looked at my map. Now was the moment of decision, though. Should I stay at this shelter, making my day only 16.8 miles and ending at noon? Or should I push on to the road that I knew would lead to Erwin and risk my luck getting a hitch. You read the start of this post. You know what happens. I left the shelter after twenty minutes of snacking, prepped to climb Unaka Mountain. 1200 feet over a lengthy 2.2 miles didn't make this a steep climb by anyone's reckoning, but I did end up over 5000 feet again. As I climbed, the rain picked up and a cold wind blew. My body's heat matched the elements on the way up. I chanted the name of the mountain, as I believed it was pronounced, under my breath. OO-na-kuh. oo-NA-kuh. oo-na-KUH. I tried them all out. It sounded very primal. On top was a spruce forest, which looked really cool with the rain coming down. I didn't stop to take a picture for fear of wetting out my phone, so it's one of those personal images that I get to keep in my own memory. Sorry! As the effort of climbing ended, I caught a chill and put my rain shell back on. I dropped down, down, down as the wind still whipped my face. Brrrr. Luckily it got better as I dropped to lower elevations. Before I could keep track, I had crossed the Beauty Spot and was at TN 395, my way into town!

Cars were sporadic and didn't look to be keen on stopping. I walked down the road for a bit until I got service, then called a shuttle. 10-K was there to pick me up within 15 minutes. He's an angel. I was out of the rain and eating mexican food in no time! But a chill had set into my bones, one that doesn't just leave. I spent a good amount of time in the bathroom with my hands under the hot water and letting the hot-air hand-dryer dry a lot more than my hands. Once I decided I had been using these services for a suspicious amount of time, I paid up and went outside. Shivering and shouldering my pack once again, I got pestered by a panhandler. I couldn't believe it. I looked worse than he did! He asked for a dime, I gave him a quarter, and he asked if I was sure I didn't have any more. I looked at the see-through ziplock that I keep my money in, but was at a loss for words. I walked away and went down the street to hitch. My driver was so eager to pick me up that he slammed on his brakes in the road and backed in to the KFC parking lot. I didn't realize he had stopped for me, so I kept walking. He followed me down the road and beeped at me, and I figured out my mistake. He was a really nice guy. We talked about bear hunting and how he admired what I was doing. Back at the hostel, I got a much-needed hot shower and talked to the two sectioners who are also in the bunkhouse. Sarge, the head honcho at Uncle Johnny's, made fun of my beard. He offered to trim it, and called me "Whiskers" throughout the night. That's funny, because he did that on the first night I've felt truly annoyed with my facial hair. When it's wet, my mustache goes right into my mouth. I'll shed it soon enough!


Picture: NO PICTURES! IT RAINED. I think my prose does a good job setting the scene, though.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Day 100: Mountaineer Shelter to Roan High Knob Shelter

Miles today: 25.1
Miles total: 1810.1

Currently sitting on the table...

Day 100! I think I've officially been at this for a long time. Am I a thru-hiker yet? I thought about this today. I'll be a southbounder (sobo) until I reach Springer Mountain, at which point I will officially become MEGA Rooster (Maine-Georgia). That's as far as I've thought on that subject. I got to bed early last night and woke throughout my slumber to find a full moon shining down on me. I viewed this as a good omen for a clear day today. I got up early and started hiking in the dark. The moon had unfortunately fallen too low to lend any light. Even in the early light, when I am normally slower, I was trucking along. I came to US 19 pretty early and looked ahead at my elevation profile. Hmm. A five-mile climb? I suppose I should go into town to fuel up. I got picked up with no problem by some guy who was out for his morning drive through the mountains. He attempted to point out the peaks I would be hitting today, but it was still too foggy and cloudy. I ate at Subway and then got snacks from the attached gas station. I sat outside eating an insane amount of chips ahoy cookies when a local asked me if I was headed back to the trail. I had secretly hoped this would happen. Sneaky sneaky, Rooster.

Back on the trail, I began my gradual assault on Hump Mountain. I knew I would be hitting the Tennessee-North Carolina border, but I didn't know if it would be marked. I was delighted to find that it was! This means that for the next few hundred miles or so, I will essentially be walking the border. I had fun with this notion, thinking of steps with my right foot counting as "TN miles" and steps with my left foot counting towards NC. What if one stride is systematically longer than the other? I could be short-changing a state! I now imagine that my left buttcheek is in NC. The fun can only continue. About a mile from the summit, the trees abruptly stopped. This was one of those bald mountains! I love hiking out of the trees. It helps the miles just fly by when you can see that summit up ahead. I cruised over Hump and Little Hump before coming to one of the most famous shelters on the AT: Overmountain. It's a converted barn, so it's just massive. The guidebook says it sleeps twenty, but who can say for sure? I got a picture as I approached it, which was apparently enough for me because I eschewed the 0.3 mile side trail.

More bald walking brought me on to a number of other intermediate peaks between 5000 and 6000 feet. The hiking was sublime, some of my favorite on the entire trail. Being in a state park, I ran into a good number of people. One of these people was an alpine climber from Georgia on a day hike. He gave me a Snickers bar and said "Have a good one" in such a genuine way that I was almost knocked over by a wave of kindness. I crossed a road (such a funny thing at 6000 feet) then it was a small climb up to Roan High Knob. Not a single raindrop touched my head today, even with the threat of afternoon storms. This and other similar weather miracles have me convinced that Pamola is watching over me. Pamola is the weather god that watches over Katahdin or something. I'm fuzzy on the details, but he has an eagle head with a human torso and moose legs. Not like a centaur, just two legs. Anyways, I have accepted Pamola into my heart and will be starting a Pamola church when I am done with the trail. Today's weather made for one of my best days yet. I'm told it will be raining buckets tomorrow, but for today I can't complain about a thing. And I got in to the shelter before 4, even after going into town for breakfast. Can you say efficiency? Say it louder. So I can hear you! EFFICIENCY!


Pictures: Huuuuuump Mountain; it's a barn, it's a shelter, it's...Overmountain!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Day 99: Hampton, TN to Mountaineer Shelter

Miles today: 24.2
Miles total: 1785.0

Currently laying in the shelter...

My buddy in the hostel last night ended up being a little interesting. He smoked like a chimney at all hours of the day, then would sleep for a bit, then wake up and eat eggs and read a blog about boating on the computer. This made me kind of wish I had chosen the other hostel in town, but I still got a good night's rest. I ended up getting up early, hoping to get a jump on the rain. I ate almost a whole box of Honey Bunches of Oats and regret nothing. As soon as I started walking, drizzle started and I put on my pack cover. So much for beating the rain. I went up and right back down Pond Flats Mountain, which made it seem pointless, but the trail does what it wants. The rain mostly persisted only as drops from the trees, so I didn't get very cold or wet at all. I worked hard to climb up White Rocks Mountain. Or rather, the trail "skirts it", my guide tells me. I still made decent time to Moreland Gap Shelter, where I stopped for lunch. Are you noticing a pattern with how my days go? It had stopped raining for a while, and by the time I started off again, even the leaves were done dripping.

The rest of my hike was basically a ridge walk. I made good time, but I noticed that Tennessee's trail tends to have a lot of little ups and downs, compared to Virginia's absolute flatness. I started off the day worried that Tennessee would be much more rugged than Virginia, but that wasn't really the case. I'll see about tomorrow, when I get up to 6000 feet for the first time since Mount Washington in New Hampshire! If there is a clear spot during the day, that walk along the top of Roan Mountain should be very rewarding. It should be a challenge, though. I've heard a lot of people talk about the wind and the cold up top. That's most of what I was thinking about at the end of my day. Worry worry worry. That seems like it's all I do. Worry about weather, worry about injury, worry about not having enough cheese. More so about those first two. I decided last night that I would much rather arrive at Springer in one piece and a little later than not at all. So I don't want to push miles! Sobos can pass me! My ego can handle it. Besides, 20 mile days means I have 20 days of hiking left. Who wants to rush that? All this pondering aside, I still had that great feeling in my gut when I reached the shelter at the day's end. It's a welcome sight to see a roof to sleep under. And this one is relatively new, with a loft and a covered area to do cooking. The child in me always wants to stake out a spot in the top bunk, but the pragmatic adult (yes I have that side to me) reminds me that I would have to climb up and down in the morning. So forgettaboutit, I'm on the first story, relaxing my legs for a big day tomorrow. I might even go to bed early!


Pictures: I can see it now; this is what it looks like when I first spy a shelter.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Day 98: Double Springs Shelter to Hampton, TN

Miles today: 23.3
Miles total: 1760.8

Currently sitting in Compucraft Computers/Hiker's Haven Hostel...

Pretty standard day. It was a little bit on the cold side last night, so I had trouble getting out of my sleeping bag this morning. I didn't get going until 6:40, but that was nice because then I didn't have to use my headlamp very long. Also, I didn't need to get up super early because today's mileage didn't call for it. After my strong push to get into Damascus, I started to wonder if higher mileage was even justifiable anymore. I don't have a deadline to meet, so pushing my pace would only open me up to injury. I can't even begin to fathom the emotional pain that not finishing this journey would evoke. At the same time, I do have an ego to pad, and by my counts I am the fifth sobo to pass through these parts this season. I continue to remind myself that I won't care what place I finished in a few years. Also, I don't think anyone else really cares. A little competitive spirit is healthy, though.

I ran the ever-undulating ridge until I came to Iron Mountain Shelter, where I took my standard snack break. More of the same got me to another shelter whose name escapes me (I already put away that page from my guidebook). I chatted with a section hiker named Russ while dining on a Nutella tortilla, then I was off again. The 20 percent chance of rain stuck in the back of my mind. I dropped down, down, down from the ridge until I started to catch glimpses of Watauga Lake. It's one of those lakes created by a dam, and it reminded me of the Dale Hollow Lake, where my family took a couple of vacations that I look back upon fondly. I passed through an area with an active bear population. They are so active, in fact, that only thru-hikers are technically allowed to hike the trail through this section, and even then I wasn't supposed to stop. Being a danger fanatic, I stopped at the shelter to check out the logbook. That was only mildly entertaining so I continued on for a short hike to US 321. On the way, I met a section hiker named Postman. He was planning on staying at Watauga Lake Shelter. I reminded him of the bear situation and, more realistically, the chance he would get in trouble for violating the rules. He seemed pretty tired and dead set on staying, so I gave him directions and headed on.

I got to the road just as the first sprinkles of rain were hitting my head. I stuck out my thumb and a truck pulled over from the first line of cars. That must have been my fastest hitch. My chauffeur was so nice as to drive me farther away to a real grocery store. Not only that, but he picked me up on his way back from his errand. I like Tennessee already! He dropped me off at Compucraft, which recently opened up a hostel in the owners' disused carport. They're technically in the computer repair business, but it's also sort of an internet cafe/diner inside. It's very interesting. I got checked in and took a shower before trying again to plan out my next few days. The distribution of shelters and campsites is just wonky. I can't figure out a sensible plan to end up in Erwin in either three or four days. It looks like it might end up being more like three and a half. I have to take it one day at a time because the terrain ahead looks a lot more challenging than the stuff in my recent memory. Maybe I will experience the soreness in my quads and calves that were so familiar in the north. I can almost guarantee I will get all flabbergasted at not being able to keep up the same pace I've been trucking along at. But you have to take what the trail gives you. I'm just not sure what it will be. I do know that the trail jumps onto the Tennessee/North Carolina border in a couple days. That means I'll only have one more state line to cross! It also means that I'm close to familiar country. It's only 40 miles to Boone on the highway here, and I've actually been to that town! It's starting to feel like I'm almost done. Three weeks to go, assuming I average 20 miles per day. That's not an absurd number, ya know.


Photo: gonna take a ride into the danger zone.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Day 97: Damascus, VA to Double Springs Shelter

Miles today: 19.0
Miles total: 1737.5

Currently sitting at the picnic table...

The temperature in the bunkroom was perfect, and I got the soundest sleep I've had in a while. I know this because after falling asleep, the next thing I remember is waking up with a start. I just slept right through. After startling myself, I was pretty much awake so I went down to Dairy King to eat breakfast and to finish my blog entry from yesterday. Soon I saw a section hiker I met at dinner last night as well as a trio of hikers from Raleigh who were also staying at Hikers Inn. The section hiker talked my ear off, then townies talked my other ear off, and soon both were talking to me at the same time. I kid you not. These people are very friendly, but I just wanted to write my blog! I took it back to Hikers Inn, where found some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, during my long absence this morning, Coyote had hit the trail. He left me his business card, though.

Since I had decided today would be a shorter day, I dinked around the hostel for a while. Soon enough, the beautiful, cool day beckoned me to hike nonetheless. I had decided I would stop by the library before leaving, and it didn't open until 11, I had a good excuse to relax. When I say relax, I mean I walked down to the Food City store and perused the aisles. I didn't really get anything for the trail other than a big block of sharp cheddar, but I feasted on munchies in the parking lot. I was at the library around opening time, where I marveled at the beautiful facilities. I would say Damascus is in a tie with Front Royal for the "Best Library on the Trail" award. I sat down at the computer and, in addition to my normal tomfoolery, was actually a little bit productive. I registered for a Thru-Hiker permit to go through the Smokies later this month. Just this year, they instituted a policy where hikers have to pay just to walk through! Many hikers I talked to were planning to try to sneak through under the radar, but I thought it would be worth it to go ahead and pay so I wouldn't worry the whole time. I only live dangerously in certain ways, and bureaucratic danger is one kind I won't mess with.

Right outside the library, I bid a very fond farewell to Damascus and hiked out of town. It really is a great trail town, and I recommend it to anyone interested in doing part of the trail. Everything you need is right there, and half the town has thru-hiked at some point, I swear. I climbed the ridge very gradually, and I was in Tennessee before I knew it. That's right folks. After 550 miles and a month of hiking, Virginia is over with. Still my favorite state, but you gotta move on at some point. Goodbye my love. My thoughts lingered but I soon caught up with the Raleigh Trio from Hikers Inn. We chatted again, I said goodbye again, and then I sat down for lunch at the shelter. They caught up, so I felt kind of stupid for saying bye, but that is just the way the AT cookie crumbles. We talked about gear and Tony said that because I had so much time to think about it that I should invent something to make backpacking easier. I told him that at some point I had given up and that my gear was just my gear. I said one final goodbye to the crew and headed on to the next shelter. I had given myself the opportunity to stop at the first one, but I got there at 3. I have caught a bug called "Springer Fever". Its symptoms include pushing longer days to get to Springer Mountain sooner and generally daydreaming about that epic finish day. The only known cure is one Springer Mountain view, administered ocularly once in a lifetime or every year as long as symptoms persist. Ask your doctor if Springer Mountain is right for you. Side effects include gaining back 20 pounds.


Picture: the iconic welcome sign in Damascus; moving on to Tennessee.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Day 96: Thomas Knob Shelter to Damascus, VA

Miles today: 27.5
Miles total: 1718.7

Currently sitting at the table outside Hikers Inn...

This day has gotta go on record as the first day in which I was excited about getting to a town and I didn't hike miserably for the whole day. My starting point was the high point for the day, 5430' on Thomas Knob. The wind was gusty and there was fog, but it actually wasn't too cold. Nonetheless, I started off all bundled up just in case, especially because I was going to use the privy before I left. For being up so high, this privy was pretty open to the elements. It was essentially a bathroom stall in the woods, which left my nether-regions open to a vigorous morning draft. Once I got moving, the rocks of yesterday abated and I was able to make great time, especially because the general trend of the day was downhill. The threat of a small chance of rain kept me moving, with the thought of getting inside before a storm appealing to my hiker senses. I went over Whitetop Mountain in the fog, then over Lost Mountain and down, down, down into Damascus. I was so happy to leave the woods and walk along US 58 towards town. The anticipation was killing me; this is one of the most famous towns among AT hikers for its friendly townspeople and for its mid-May hiking festival called Trail Days. I missed that by a few months. Darn education.

My first stop was Subway, where I ran in to a guy who was finishing up his AT section hike. He told me his name was Coyote, and I let out a yip as I met my natural predator. He was a friendly Coyote though, and he pointed me to Hiker's Inn, a place I had already been considering for tonight's accommodations. So it was set. I walked on over and grabbed myself a bunk. The best part of walking through Damascus is that the trail goes right through town, so every step I took as I ate and drank my way along Laurel Street counted as mileage for my day. Not that I needed any, today was already a monster by 3:30 PM. Never have I done so many miles so quickly. That's excitement for you. I tried to plan out my next few days on the trail then gave up and went to resupply at Dollar General. I had decided to get a few days of food then wing it as usual. I never know if I'll want to do 18 miles or 28 miles. I take what the trail provides. Coyote and I went over to the Blue Blaze for dinner, politely turning down an invitation to participate in their pool tournament. I guess Damascus really is just that friendly. I'm beat from the last week's high mileage, so I think tomorrow will be a short one to the shelter just up on the ridge. As with everything out here, time will tell.


Picture: my sorry picture of the trail sign at the north end of town.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Day 95: Trimpi Shelter to Thomas Knob Shelter

Miles today: 25.1
Miles total: 1691.0

Currently sitting at the picnic table...

I feel like I'm in New Hampshire! This shelter is over a mile high. The first part of the day was the typical Virginia green tunnel. I started off in the dark again, wearing my gloves to keep my hands warm and to wipe my snot. I looked at the elevation profile for the day and saw a lot of climbing, but as usual it ended up being pretty tame. I stopped at Hurricane Mountain Shelter to refill water and to gorge myself on snacks. I think I ate too much sugar without enough protein because I got that jittery feeling again. It might have also been because I had eaten instant coffee powder and made a Crystal Light energy drink. I stopped at the next shelter and ate some peanut butter to compensate, which seemed to help. Since there were three shelters between my starting and ending shelters, I had a lot of stops today. I wrote in four shelter logs! Jeez. Anyways, the gentle climbing made the first 20 miles fly by. I was at Wise Shelter before 2 PM. I kept a close eye on my pack because I heard that a bear took some guy's pack while he used the privy.

After heading out into my last five miles, I entered Grayson Highlands State Park. I had heard there were wild ponies up there, but I didn't know much else. I kept crossing through gates that were designed to keep livestock in. But I didn't know which side of the fence the livestock belonged. There was poop everywhere. Soon I passed a livestock corral and I felt like I was in the wild west. The trees disappeared at the high elevation, and what was left was mostly scrub bushes. I could have sworn I was in California. Also, my AT Guide started messing up all the mileages, so I just enjoyed the scenery. I climbed up even higher, over 5000 feet. I really enjoyed all the views of the mountains in the distance without trees in the way. Soon I saw the ponies I had heard about! One was even close by. I learned from the day hikers that his name was Fabio. He came up to my in search of food, but I was sorry to tell him that I didn't have any. It was still fun to pet a wild pony. 

Within the next half-mile, I ran in to some big-horn steer grazing peacefully. One quickly picked his head up when I came close. The move looks aggressive, but I've learned that it's just their way of keeping watch. I gave them plenty of room and took pictures, like I do with everything.

The rocks of the lowlands gave way to actual rock formations sticking out of the ground at high elevations. The terrain reminded me of my early days on the trail, back in Maine and New Hampshire. This "seasoned veteran" had to re-learn how to scramble up and over the big rock steps. Actually, the bigger adjustment was changing my timing. I know my pace on flat ground. I can really feel it out and anticipate where I will be with great precision. On rocks, that all goes to pot. I was disoriented, albeit only along a line that is the AT. It didn't help that the AT Guide has become less and less reliable the farther south I go. My confusion was really a blessing in disguise; I forgot about pace and took in the spectacular views every five feet. I looked enviously at all the campsites on grass that looked like it belonged on a fairway. The smell of pine trees almost knocked me on my butt. The associated memories were so vivid that I felt like I had been thrown straight back into Maine. Everything looked the same at first glance. I guess Virginia's 5500 feet is equivalent to Maine's 3000 feet? However you slice it, today was an amazing day. I pulled up to the beautiful two-story shelter in the mid-afternoon with plenty of time to relax and get water before DD and Brightside arrived. Somehow, the water was flowing in a strong spring from the side of the mountain. Someone explain this to me! Is the water table just that high? Actually, if someone could explain any of the things I saw, that would be great. Today was incomprehensibly awesome.


Pictures: 5000 feet once again; the rocky Grayson Highlands; Fabio the Pony; long-horned steer.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Day 94: Crawfish Trail Campsite to Trimpi Shelter

Miles today: 28.5
Miles total: 1665.9

Currently sitting in the shelter...

The cold front is here! I woke up, and my 15 degree sleeping bag was coming in handy. It was reportedly down in the 40s, so I did everything I could before getting out of my sleeping bag. It all went fairly smoothly, but I still started off hiking with my nanopuff jacket and gloves on. I warmed up as I climbed, so I took off my jacket and gloves. Suddenly, as I descended into the valley, it started to get colder. That's really unusual in my experience, but I'm no meteorologist. I popped out of the woods and into a pasture, where the sun was shining brilliantly. In the shadowy spots, it was deeply cold, but the sun made it just the right temperature. I avoided the dew on the grass by sticking to the middle of the trail. Just ahead, I saw a cow grazing smack dab in my path. I thought about petting it, but then I noticed the large cajones dangling between his legs. That was a bull. I realized that a lot of these cattle were bulls. I danced gingerly around them, of course getting a couple pictures, but not from close range. This brought me into the dew, which soaked my shoes and got my feet extra cold. After I left the pasture, there was more dew-walking, and I felt like I was walking in a freezing stream. I was so grateful to spot the Sunoco sign that indicated I had almost made it to the town of Atkins. I immediately headed to a restaurant called The Barn for breakfast, warming up with a cup of coffee. I didn't get enough to eat, so I doubled down on gas station food. That was also my resupply point. I've decided I would much rather avoid hitching when possible. It's nice to walk right up to a store. I sat outside and ate in the sun, then took off again.

The next section was uneventful as I kept my head down and considered my options for the day. Partnership Shelter for a shorter day and pizza delivery, or Trimpi Shelter for a longer day and potential rendezvous with Brightside and DD? I decided I would wait and see. I stopped to use the privy at Chatfield Shelter and found out that Brightside and DD had stayed there and were headed to Marion today. I was going to catch up finally! I hauled to Partnership Shelter and left a note in the log for my two friends. I also checked out the shelter, which had a laundry basin and a hot shower. It was sad to move on, but I knew I'd be happy tomorrow when I was hiking through Grayson Highlands State Park in the sun. As I got up to leave, Brightside and DD walked up, back from town. Turns out we shared plans to end up at Trimpi Shelter tonight. On the hike there, we leapfrogged as Brightside overtook me, then I overtook him as he took a break. I found an amazing setup of trail magic, with a huge chest of food. I was eating chips as I walked through a cow pasture, and they all seemed pretty interested. I was still scared from this morning, so I took the long way around again. Soon enough I was at the shelter, which was really full of section hikers. I managed to snag a bunk up top, but Brightside and DD ended up tenting. There's a fire going in the shelter's fireplace, so I have the section hikers to thank for that! I was kind of looking forward to just hanging out with DD and Brightside tonight, but the evening was still very enjoyable. We have tomorrow to hang out!


Picture: aggressive cows.