Day mileage: 34.5
AT total mileage: 468
Time: 10.75 hours
When I woke up this morning the only light was that of the stars, a crescent moon, and the street lamps glowing in the valley below. The birds, bears, and other wildlife were still asleep, and hikers were fast asleep buried in their sleeping bags, all chilled by the cold of the early morning hours. It was 4 am. I fastened my LED headlamp to my head and began quietly removing my gear from the shelter. I'd carry my sleeping bag 30 feet away before packing it into the stuff sack. I'd carry piece by piece from the shelter to my bag, away from everyone so as to not wake them. I signed the shelter log book as 'out 2 hours before the sun', and hit the trail at just before 5 am. I actually went so far as to carry my air-inflated sleeping pad 1/8 of a mile or so before deflating it on the forest floor, knowing that the rush of escaping air upon deflation would likely wake a sleeping body. Today's early rise was very specifically goal oriented.
The trail was pitch black. My 140 lumens of headlamp was enough to illuminate the world in front of me, leaving everything else in complete darkness. I found my pace for the morning as I ate a Pop-Tart, knowing I needed something in the variety of food to get me through until my normal breakfast time. As I walked I unknowingly engaged in a game of 'chicken' with moths and other bugs on the trail, as I walked forward they'd fly as close to my headlamp as possible before darting left or right to avoid a collision. Cobwebs spanned across the trail but in the end I was in complete silence, alone in the woods. About an hour before sunrise the sky began its transformation as a watercolor painting, dark reds and oranges appearing low on the horizon. For a few miles of uphill the trail would skirt around the ridgeline, sometimes dipping down into the ravine below before climbing back up top. At one point it stayed low long enough that I was nervous I'd miss the exact moment of sunrise. In the cold darkness of the morning, my breath visible with every exhale, my body barely noticed the steep inclines I was hiking. Eventually the sun crested the mountain ridges on the horizon, and light raced across the valley at its remarkable 186,000 feet per second. Slowly the world came to life, birds chirping, street lamps turning off for the day, and hikers waking in their tents.
I arrived at Iron Mountain Shelter at 7:15 AM, more than 7 miles down the trail from where I started, meaning I was hiking at just over 3 miles an hour. My goal was not to stay and rest, simply to eat something and quickly move on. I signed the guest book, listening to tired hikers talk over their breakfasts, poured on hand sanitizer (lots of Norovirus going around) and was back on the trail in less than 5 minutes. One important thing to mention is a piece of graffiti that was written boldly across the front of this shelter. No profanity, no art, just the words 'Practice Momentum'... This became something I thought about & strived for throughout the day. I continued on, quickly hiking through some easier terrain, stopping to get water before coming across a bright orange steel box sitting on the side of the trail. Messages taped to trees around it informed hikers that it was trail magic from a local church, wishing health, happiness, and the 'discovery of a closer relationship with God' during your hike. The homemade box had crosses cut out with a plasma torch, and was stocked with an ice filled cooler containing Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Mountain Dew. There was also a Tupperware container with Little Debbie pastry snacks, and a spiral notebook detailing the elementary school girls responsible for the trail magic. They simply asked that after taking a drink and some food that you write in your trail name and where you're from so they can keep track. Last year their trail magic reached hikers from 43 states and 11 countries.
A mile or so after the magic, the trail came out of the woods to Tennessee Rt. 91, where after crossing the road hikers entered through a 'Cow & Horse Proof Gate' (this took me more than a minute to figure out how to get into, so I'm sure it is in fact farm animal proof) a large farming field. The trail continued on through private property, acres and acres of lusciously green grass, perfectly manicured for the rolling hills. After a mile of farmlands and countless views back over the valleys of Tennessee nestled between mountain ridges, the trail inevitably meandered back into the woods, climbing up a thousand feet in elevation before stopping at Double Springs Shelter. I arrived there at 10:02, 5 hours after beginning my hike, now with 15 miles under my feet for the day. I was thrilled with this information, knowing it meant I was maintaining a very quick pace and on track for my long day. I ate a McDonald's double cheeseburger, now around 36 hours old and still delicious, and spoke to a hiker named Hog Driver (from Lynn, MA) and he was flabbergasted with my attained mileage. I also found there to be some beautiful irony with eating a double cheeseburger at Double Springs shelter... It fits. The trail continued to climb up from the shelter, and I flew by Hog Driver as I continued on. The trail took to higher ridges, elevations changing by 200-500' before dipping back down and repeating the climbs. I call these parts of the trails PLUDS or Pointless Little Ups & Downs. It's tiring to ascend and descend so repeatedly with nothing really gained. Regardless, I walked on. At one point, around 19 miles into the day, I stopped and removed my left shoe and sock, noting some discomfort with one of my toes. Wanting to fix any problem areas before they became blisters, I created a duct-tape condom of sorts for my toe... Problem solved. I'll be getting my new New Balance 1210s via mail drop tomorrow so this isn't a huge issue. I continued along and rolled up to the Abingdon Gap Shelter, 23 miles into my day, at 1 pm exactly. (Slightly disappointed I was down from my 3 mph due to blister treatment). The shelter was empty except for a section hiker named Cellphone who I spoke with while I ate another cheeseburger. Today was about consuming frequently and stopping infrequently to keep the calories and energy coming in. I sat for less than 10 minutes before filtering some new water and getting on my way.
The last 10 miles of my day had some climbs and then a sloped descent into the next town. I was slowing at this point, but after hiking for 9 hours and having 26 miles under my feet, I was understanding of why and allowed myself to slow a bit. At mile 463, I officially crossed out of Tennessee for the last time, and entered into Virginia: State Line #4. Less than 4 miles from there I walked onto the paved streets of Damascus, Virginia, a hugely notable town on the Appalachian Trail, at 4:15 PM. I made it. My goal, decided a few days ago, was to hike an insane 34 miles today in order to make it to Damascus on my 31st day of hiking the Trail. I have officially made it from Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, to here in one month. This isn't the fastest time (nor am I going for the fastest time) but it's something I'm exceptionally proud of. I later learned that hiking from the shelter I spent the night in at all the way to Damascus is also known as the 'Damascus Challenge' on the trail, so I guess I completed that too. Good for me.
I immediately stopped at the Dollar General on Main Street and bought (4) 32oz Gatorades which were consumed on site. I ran into Soleil who was talking with a thru-hiker from 2011 named Gumby. He's section hiking bits and pieces currently, and bought us a pizza as we sat and talked. A University of Central Florida from the same year I graduated from college in Orlando, we talked for a while and he offered us his car to run any errands. I thanked him profusely for the pizza and offer, and made my way to where I'd be spending the night. The Place (actual name of the establishment) is a large house run by the Methodist Church where hikers and Transcontinental bicyclists can spend the night in a bunk or tenting in the yard for a donation of $6. I set up my tent and was apprised by the caretaker, trail name Bayou, of the 2,000 someodd rules The Place has, then wandered up and down Main Street for a while. I again ran into Gumby and Soleil who invited me to go see a movie, an opportunity to feel human again, which of course I agreed to. I put on some deodorant as I'd yet to shower the 34 miles worth of grime off myself, and we headed out to see the new Captain America film. Afterwords we stopped by Wendy's for some fast food (it's so nice to eat something hot that doesn't require boiling water) and then returned to The Place around 10:30, way past 'hiker midnight' and subsequently my bedtime.
It was a crazy day. I doubt I'll ever walk that far again on this trip but who knows. I'm not in much pain, which is great to know. I think this is the ultimate proof that my 'trail legs' have been established. Today I walked just under 4x the distance I walked a month ago on my first day of hiking. I'll shower and get a good nights sleep, and celebrate my mileage by taking a Zero day tomorrow here in Damascus. It will be nice to just sit around with no purpose. Tuesday morning I'll pack up and head back into the mountains, with 1,700 miles or so still out in front of me, only attainable a mile at a time.
Whew. What a day. I'm still smiling.