Day mileage: 9.7
AT total mileage: 368.7
Time: 4 hours
If you've been watching the news, you've probably heard about the tornado force winds, massive storms, and subsequent deaths across the lower regions of the country. Those same weather systems have swept across our region of the Appalachian Trail these past two days, and are supposedly going to continue wreaking havoc tonight and tomorrow as well.
Rain began at midnight, with a huge thunder and lightening storm beginning at two in the morning. Continuing well into the morning I actually debated hitting the trail at all, with most of the hikers in the shelter wondering if moving out of the rain cover was even worth it. Ultimately, I decided I wouldn't be good at taking a zero day, shy of 'earning' it with impressive mileage the day before, severe illness, or physical disability. I packed up, ate breakfast, and walked out into rain and gusty winds around 9 AM. It took me about a mile of hiking to realize that I had left my Red Sox hat at the shelter, and I turned back at a double-pace to try and not lose out on time or my hat. Luckily, about 1/2 way back to the shelter, a hiker named Moe informed me that Whitey had it and was bringing it with him to the next shelter. Whew! Seems silly, but I assure you my hat is as vital to me as my water and my backpack. It's an essential piece of gear, and I suppose even my identity on the trail (and probably in real life, too).
Being a weird day with weather, and still hiking alone for the most part, I tried something new today: listening to audiobooks as I walked. Not knowing how I'd like it, I started with Malcom Gladwell's book 'Outliers' which I've already read a print version of. I figured that way if I got distracted or became disinterested, it wouldn't be a huge deal. Jury's still out on the experience as a whole, but it wasn't that bad for mindless walking. I think during more steep ascents and challenging hiking I'll stick with music over a voice reading to me.
About two hours into my hike I came across Iron Mountain Gap, where the trail crosses over a busy state road. I somewhat instinctively looked around for any trail magic, and found none. I decided to stop and eat a granola bar, and about the time I finished throwing the wrapper into my trash bag a small SUV with New Hampshire plates (I did a double take, initially not believing my eyes) pulled into the parking lot. The window rolled down and a girl yelled 'Trail Magic!' which got me on my feet quickly. The girl, trail name Flea, was being dropped off by her mother and aunt after spending some days getting over Norovirus. Her mom opened the back of the Toyota and offered up a delicious snack of hot dogs, baked beans, BBQ potato chips, and home made cornbread. I've never been so happy to have taken my time eating a granola bar, otherwise I would have missed this! I spent about half an hour talking with them, and was joined by Whitey and Moe who also got some snacks. After thanking them profusely, I got back on the trail. The weather cleared for a while, save for some exceptionally strong gusts of wind, and climbing out of the gap I was down to hiking in a t-shirt and shorts.
The trail markings are rather sparse in this stretch of Tennessee, which I believe was part of what led me to the weird feelings today. I can honestly say that I spent a while not wanting to be hiking. Despite the weather and looming threat of more severe systems moving in, I sat for a while on a log examining life. I kept referencing the map, not understanding why it was taking me so long to reach the shelter I was aiming to eat lunch at. I was simply fed up with walking, for whatever reason. After a while of sitting on the fallen tree (there is a certain freedom about being able to just sit on a downed tree with no consequence to time that's rather amazing) I decided to keep walking. I kid you not, less than 200 yards up the trail I came across the sign for the entrance to the shelter I was aiming for. I guess I was a lot further along than I thought (I blame the poorly marked trail), but I suppose the world is just funny like that.
Having a small lunch at the shelter, and hearing an updated report of severe weather moving in, I went back and forth for quite a while about moving on to the next shelter or not. The miles wouldn't be an issue, the next place is only 8 miles away. What was a big concern, however, is the 6,200' elevation of Roan Mountain that lies between here and the next protected building to camp in. Summiting a bald mountain at over 6,000 feet during a storm that has already claimed lives and was creating 'gale force winds' and lightening storms at the peak didn't seem like a smart idea. What really bothered me for quite a while was the notion of stopping my hike after 4 hours and only 9.7 miles. It didn't feel right to be done so early in the afternoon. I debated for quite a while and ended up setting up my sleeping bag in the lofted section of the shelter I was at. Better to be smart and walk less miles for one day than be found dead at the summit of a mountain that isn't Everest.
I took a few short naps throughout the afternoon, talking with Whitey and Moe who also are staying here. Throughout the remainder of the day another dozen or so hikers showed up, including Soleil and JPEG, and we have crammed 9 people into a shelter built to hold 6. Nobody wants to tent in this weather, although some of the later arrivals will have to. Fingers are crossed that tomorrow's weather will be a bit kinder, and that the last of the major lightening and thunder storms pass by tonight. The wind is already severely worse now (2100 hrs) than it was throughout the afternoon. Either way I'll be pushing another 17 miles or so over Roan Mountain to the Overland Shelter which is sort of famous on the Appalachian Trail. If all goes well I'll be able to post some info and photos of it tomorrow night.
From a dry sleeping bag in an otherwise soggy world, that's all the news that's fit for print.