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.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Day 93: Jenkins Shelter to Crawfish Trail Campsite

Miles today: 26.7
Miles total: 1637.4

Currently sitting in my tent...

Happy three months to me, happy three months to me, happy three months dear ROOOSTER, happy three months to me. That's right, three months ago I stood on top of Katahdin and tried to fathom the task in front of me. I don't know when the remaining mileage started to become reasonable, but it has. I'm camped just a mile or so from the three-quarters mark of my journey. Seems like a cool day: I've been hiking for three months and I'm 3/4 done with the mileage. By my estimates, I have less than a month to go unless I dilly-dally a lot (which I just might). Anyways, about today. I haven't ever walked you through a "typical" day on the trail. That's how I'll structure tonight's post, so you at home can get a sense of what I do and think about during the day.

1. I get going and evaluate all the systems.
So first things first, I have to start moving. My morning routine hasn't deviated much, except now I eat more and wrap my ankle before I head out. Also, I sometimes have to wear a headlamp when I first start out because sunrises are getting later and later. During this first part of the day, I'm not too focused on speed or mileage for the day. I need to dust off the cobwebs and get my wobbly body back in the groove. Mornings are typically when my body is the least cooperative. Today, I had to climb 1500 feet up to the ridge to begin. Between doing this partially in the dark and after a thirty mile day, it was a slow start. What was mostly important was getting out on the trail early to allow for some flexibility later in the day. What if the trail was one giant rock field and I couldn't manage more than two miles an hour? What if I felt good and wanted to go farther than planned today? Getting up early meant I'd be able to deal with any changes. Once on the ridge, the cold wind blew. I knew it wasn't supposed to rain today because of a cold front moving in, so I just focused on staying warm. The distance yesterday definitely had sapped my muscles, but I had no pains to report. That's good news. I just focused on getting to my first break spot, Chestnut Knob Shelter.

2. Take a break and look at today's plan again.
At this point, I've walked for a while and have a sense of how I'll be feeling today. Whenever I find a convenient spot to stop within 6-12 miles of starting, I will sit down, snack, and look in my AT Guide. Was the plan I came up with last night too ambitious? Not ambitious enough? For this second evaluation, I found myself at Chestnut Knob Shelter. At 4400 feet, this was the highest shelter I had seen yet. To combat the harsh conditions on top of the mountain, the shelter was made of stone and completely enclosed. I could have shut the door if I wanted, but it wasn't that cold. The sun had come out for good. As I ate, I thought about what my body was telling me. Yesterday was long, so my body was tired. I decided I would have to wait until my next stopping point to see how I felt. I knew I was going at least as far as Knot Maul Branch Shelter, which would make my mileage for the day 19. A little low, but if my body needed the rest, I was willing to wait. Damascus would still be there if I arrived a day later. To make sure I was fueled up for the next leg of the day, I ate a lot. Two peanut butter tortillas (one with instant coffee powder mixed in, were my staple. I've had success having a big meal during my first stop, and caffeine always helps.

3. Slog through the middle part of the day.
You gotta get there somehow. The day isn't fresh and new anymore, so it helps to find something to entertain you. These are sometimes the toughest miles of the day because you can't think about getting to your endpoint yet. One coping technique I often employ is to pick intermediate points along the way and shoot for those. Today I focused on things less than a mile away to help pass the time. Springs, creeks, road crossings, tops of mountains, side trails. Anything that was listed in the AT Guide. I would pick out a landmark ahead and estimate when I would arrive based on my average pace. For example, 0.8 miles at 3 mph is sixteen minutes. Estimating my arrival time also helped me anticipate when I could expect to see the landmark. The first couple miles after the shelter took me through a clearing with amazing views, so mind games weren't necessary. When it was time to climb again, I listened to my playlist for an extra boost.

4. Re-evaluate and commit to a plan.
I start the day with a plan, but then the day actually happens. Sometimes things change. During one of the last breaks of the day, I'll size up my options then pick one. Once I start walking again, I am bound to that plan unless something dramatic happens. Today, I found myself at Knot Maul Branch Shelter before 2:15. Way too early to be done, but what was my next move? I ate some more, in slightly smaller proportions than my mid-morning meal. I could stay there and rest (no), I could camp a little farther down (maybe), or I could push to a farther campsite (potentially). With plenty of time to make it to the further campsite, I picked that choice. My legs had gotten less tired throughout the day, so I knew it would be alright. I ate more to make the longer journey. All that was left was actually doing it.

5. Live with your decision.
By now, I just have to put my head down and go. Sometimes this is the best part of the day, other times the worst. Today turned out to be the latter. I walked through agreeably-graded cow pastures, avoiding a fateful miss-step into the cow pies that littered the trail. The sun was shining and the air was crisp. It might not be here to stay, but the cold air was just like the stuff I remember from my four years at Duke. Once a chill got into the air, I would walk around taking big nose-fulls, savoring the feeling that fall was finally there. I liked it. So today was a good walk at the end of the day. Other times, there might have been a big climb to contend with or I could have just been tired of walking. I rolled in to the campsite, cooked food, and planned out my day for tomorrow (tentatively, of course). Then I took the words out of my head and put them into my phone for your reading pleasure!


Pictures: Chestnut Knob Shelter; view from Chestnut Ridge.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Day 92: Trent's Grocery to Jenkins Shelter

Miles today: 30.3
Miles total: 1610.7

Currently sitting at the picnic table...

Today was all about the wildlife. Perhaps it was an omen that the area near where I tented contained two horses and one giant pig. I walked up the road from the grocery back to the trail and began my climb up from the road. Right off the bat I saw two deer. That's not unusual, but it set a tone. I soon came across a skunk walking away from the trail. I stopped to look at him, and he stopped to look at me, so I made our interaction a brief one. Not 100 yards down the trail, I almost stepped on a turtle. For some reason, this scared me more than the skunk. I leapt a couple feet in the air. I just wasn't expecting it! During the course of the day, I saw plenty more deer, two turkeys (they're still very awkward flyers), a grouse, and another turtle. I feel like I'm forgetting something. Anyways, you get it. My hike up to Jenny Knob Shelter was quick, yet painful. The side of my right foot started to hurt. I gave a sigh of "here we go again" and stopped at the shelter, where I removed both shoes and the ace bandage that wraps around my shin and foot. Lucky for me, the tightness of the ace was the culprit. I re-wrapped it before resuming and instantly felt 100 percent better. Crisis averted!

I had read in the shelter log that the walk to the next shelter would be really smooth. I got what I was expecting. I'm gonna get spoiled on these long, flat sections of trail! It was a good thing too, because I went six miles without an identifying mark in my guide, just ridge walking. I would have gone crazy if I had been going slowly. Descending from the ridge, I started to hear road noise from the nearby interstate, I-77. For my whole life, this road has been the connector between my home in South Carolina and my extended family in Ohio. Only in the last few years did I realize the AT even crossed it at this point. Since then, I would stare longingly at the bridge, wondering if I would ever journey across it. In June, once my trip was about to become a reality, the distance from Maine to western Virginia overwhelmed me. How would I ever make it back to this overpass? Welp, today I crossed it. I've been above and below many interstates on this trip, but this one was the best. I even got a little emotional, following up with a whoop to salvage my macho image. I stood at US 52 for a bit to see if I could get a hitch into Bland to enjoy a Subway sandwich, but nothing materialized. With less than seven miles to go to my projected endpoint for the night, I took this as a cosmic sign that I should push past Laurel Creek campsite and head to the shelter. More miles under my belt and a roof over my head sounded like a win-win.

I kept my plans tentative, because making a decision to push past a point before you're actually there can be troublesome (I would know). Luckily for me, the walk down the ridge to Laurel Creek was just as fast as any other point in the last two days. I got to the campsite at 3:45 and felt good, so it was a no-brainer to keep clicking. I was feeling tired, but I wasn't flat-out exhausted. The trail had been kind. It helped to know that once I completed a short climb back up to the ridge, I would be done working for the day. After that I would walk on level ground before dropping into a gap for the shelter. I did just that. My legs were fatigued, but nothing was injured. Satisfied, I walked up the path to the shelter. There I found Jim, the flip-flop thru-hiker I keep running into, and Bill, a section hiker. Bill is accompanied by Coffee, a very friendly and well-behaved dog. Coffee and I hung out as I made dinner, and Bill gave me provolone cheese. I love cheese. My main course was rice mixed with instant mashed potatoes and a new addition of imitation bacon bits. I may be vegetarian, but that doesn't mean I can't party too. Now I'm n the shelter because the rain has finally come. I hope it keeps up all night. There's nothing better than listening to the rain. Well yes there is, but it's still pretty nice.


Picture: I-77 towards Cleveland!!!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Day 91: Pearisburg, VA to Trent's Grocery

Miles today: 26.3
Miles total: 1580.4

Currently sitting at a table in Trent's Grocery...

I'm on the loose again! After much anticipation to see how I would handle trail life truly on my lonesome, I was released into the wild today. As usual in a hotel, I had stayed up late watching TV, but this time I got up early because I had an ambitious plan for the day. My mom got up soon after, eager to feed me breakfast like always. We went to Hardees and ordered an assortment of breakfast sandwiches without meat, something that always confuses the employees. I checked a few of the sandwiches to make sure, and they looked good. Unfortunately, my mom's sandwich somehow became just bread and cheese. Woops. We packed up the rest of our stuff and threw it into the van, which is incredibly spacious with no back seats in it. I picked up the trail where I had left off, waving to my mom from the other side of the road. The homesickness was there, but not as bad as last time. It's gotten to the point where the finish is in sight (kind of), so I wouldn't want to abandon this undertaking. The trail welcomed me back with open arms. By that, I mean that it was impossible to follow it through the thick bushes and vines everywhere. I was surprised at how badly maintained this little section was, since it was bookended by roads no more than a half-mile apart. I screamed at the non-existent trail maintainers and felt a little better. Without delay, it started to sprinkle. I pulled my pack cover on, but the rain persisted. Leaving town meant a 1600-foot climb that was pretty steep by Virginia standards. The light rain cooled me off during the climb but picked up once I got to the ridge. Without the exertion of climbing, I quickly grew cold and put on my raincoat, which got me to the exact right temperature. I knew I would be on the ridge for a while, so I used the hood like blinders and put the pedal to the metal.

Ridge walking is nice.  I was at Doc's Knob Shelter before I knew it, relaxing and eating a brownie. I flipped open the shelter register and found entries from Brightside and DD dated from the day before. They were planning to stay at Trent's Grocery the next night, putting them exactly one day ahead of me (assuming I made it to the grocery tonight). What they also said was that someone had left sodas in the nearby spring. I crossed my fingers and took a look, and voila! A Mountain Dew for Rooster. I drank it as I continued along the trail, listening to a playlist I made last night. It includes the theme to the A-Team, if that gives you an idea what it's like. I really like my taste in music, personally. That powered me over what was left of my climbing for the day. Unfortunately, I had to pass on Woods Hole Hostel, one of the more renowned ones on the trail. I thought it would be silly to complain about low mileage, and then immediately take a short day. The ridge flattened out and the rocks disappeared, giving me a runway to take off on. The miles melted away as I cruised along the ridge, descended, and found even more easy walking in the valley. I walked through tunnels off rhododendron that made it so dark that I wasn't sure if the clouds were coming back or if I was just in an intense green tunnel. It turned out to be a mixture of both for the whole day. The clouds and sun competed for my attention, with neither one really gaining any ground. No matter; I was more focused on miles than on the scenery, not that there was much to speak of. Don't be mistaken though. I had a fun day!

After hitting my head on about 10 rhododendron branches, I stopped at Wapiti Shelter. A quick perusal of the shelter log revealed that this was the infamous shelter from a pair of murders in the '70s. Don't worry! Should I have even mentioned this? Too late to turn back now. I didn't linger there, eager to get to Trent's Grocery in time to enjoy some hot food. Luckily, the trail was still very cooperative and I made great time. Trent's offers convenience store food, pizza, tenting, and showers, all a half-mile from the trail. It was a good spot to aim for, and I made it! I've still got it. I'm going to try and set up my tent before another ripple of rain blows through.


Picture: perks of tenting near a convenience store.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Day 90: Symms Gap Campsite to Pearisburg, VA

Miles today: 10.9
Miles total: 1554.1

Currently sitting in the hotel...

We survived! Now for the details. Today was bound to be easier than yesterday because 1) we didn't have to climb a ridge and 2) we got started before 1 PM. I don't have much to say about the first part of our hike...we just walked the ridge! Soon, we popped out of the woods and into a field, with plenty of pricker bushes to be had. "Pricker bush" is an umbrella term which refers to plants that I don't want touching my legs. The reward was a nice view of the valley in nearby West Virginia, and we came to Rice Field Shelter. It was good to show my mom a shelter that wasn't awful (I'm looking at you, Pine Swamp Branch). I used the privy, which was really an open throne with a privacy wall facing the shelter, and signed the shelter log. As we were getting ready to leave, a flip-flop thru-hiker named Brightside arrived. No, this isn't the same Brightside from the past few days, this one is a girl. If she catches up to the boy version of Brightside, there will be an explosion akin to a matter-antimatter reaction. I certainly don't want to be in the blast radius. Not really; they're both very nice and I'm sure they'd get along well. I've just never seen two same-named thru-hikers meet.

After the shelter, our hike would bring us about 1500 feet down into the valley. I knew my mom's knee was a little bad and, no surprise, she was aware as well. We took it slow on the descent and everything went pretty smoothly. At the bottom, we fixed a little low-blood-sugar problem and forged onward. We popped out near US Highway 460, and I had been following white blazes the whole time. I second guessed myself, but saw a white blaze heading northbound as well. I pulled out my phone for its GPS capabilites. After looking at the map for a bit, I surmised that the trail was still in the woods. It had been a pretty long day and I didn't know how to actually get back to the trail, so we followed a road for a few hundred yards to pick the trail up where it crossed. My AT Guide had messed up the mileage again. See, the typical AT Guide is born as a northbound edition, since most people go that direction. As far as I can tell, the producers of the book get together on the night before they send the books out, where they hastily make the necessary changes to convert the book to a southbound edition for us forgotten stepchildren. In today's episode, the guide didn't have the correct mileage to a road walk along 460. What that actually meant was that we arrived sooner than expected, which in turn meant that we got to the car sooner than expected, which meant that we were drinking soda sooner than expected. A-YO!

We dined at the mexican restaurant across the street, refueled at the Food Lion in the same parking lot, and returned to the hotel to eat ice cream. I never said that we didn't drive. Gotta love those conveniences when you have 'em. Tomorrow I'll be on my lonesome, which is bittersweet. I haven't had a day of hiking that was totally on my terms since last Friday. Since then, I've either been hiking with someone or changing my day to meet up with someone. Tomorrow will be the last of those days for the foreseeable future. I'm excited to hike straight to Damascus, one of the most famous trail towns. I'm so excited to get there, and I'm ready to put in some serious mileage again. I'm feeling healthy, so I'm like a spring that has been compressed. I can't wait to see what I can do on my own! I love the hospitality of my parents, and it's so tough to let that go, but it's time.


Pictures: good morning!; crossing a stile; town clothes (see the shirt??).