Day mileage: 25
AT total mileage: 816.3
Time: 10 hours
As I was packing up my sleeping bag in the shelter this morning sometime around 6:15, a head popped around the corner saying 'I caught you!' and handing over an Glacier Ice flavored Gatorade. It took me a moment to recognize this individual, as you come to learn hikers based on their trail gear and not their campsite/sleeping gear. Pneumo, who had gotten off a few days back to return to Trail Days in Damascus for some new gear, had spent two days trying to catch up to me. This is no small task with hiking, he at points was only five miles behind but that's a long ways both distance and time wise when you're walking over such difficult terrain. Regardless, he had arrived at 2230hrs last night and had brought me a Gatorade I had joked about wanting when we parted ways last week... What a guy.
From the shelter the trail dropped down a bit, crossing over a very empty stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway then disappearing back into the woods. A relatively smooth walk over moderate terrain with one big climb comprised the morning walk, hiking just under 9 miles before hitting the (you guessed it) unceremonious 800th mile mark. At this point I was hiking with Fletch, who hiked quickly with his longer legs and thus longer strides. I kept up, happy with the pace and company, and we talked for a few miles about finish dates, family, mentality of the trail, etc. At about 11:00 we pulled into the Brown Mountain Creek shelter where he pressed on, hoping to hitchhike 9 miles west into Buena Vista, VA, while I stopped for an early lunch and to wait for Pneumo to catch up to me. Talking with other hikers about the uncelebrated 800th mile, I joked about my end-of-hike trail magic being to carve 21 signs for the 21 '100 mile' marks, then traveling the Appalachian Trail by car and posting them at roughly the right area (knowing the trail changes in length almost annually). This way there'd be a real marker for hikers to see and smile at. I for one know I'd like to see something like that. Leaving the shelter at just before noon, Pneumo and I began yet another 3,000 foot climb over 5 miles to the peak of Bald Knob, dropping down 600' then climbing back up the same elevation change to the summit of Cole Mountain.
Carrying a good pace given the extremely steep grade and heat of the sun on our backs, we summited the first of the two peaks at 1400hrs. There were times where it would have been easier to 'scramble' on hands and feet to get up this trail. At the peak of Bald Knob we passed by a group of 10 or so high school freshman and their two teachers on a backpacking trip. Exchanging Red Sox comments with the younger male teacher (from So. NH) we carried on past them, but I later learned from their other chaperone that the group is the freshman class of a private Christian high school in Pennsylvania who hikes a 36 mile trip annually with the 9th graders. Pneumo and I carried on, dipping into Cowcamp Gap and then climbing back out of it. On our ascent out, I noticed a loud noise screaming towards us, and as I turned around two Air Force jets went flying by. I'm not in the armed forces and I don't claim to know the different planes (used to know a lot, had lots of information on F-16s, 18s, etc as a kid) but these were not on a Sunday cruise kind of flight. Both plans were in a tight formation, wings tucked fully back, banking pretty steeply while blasting through between the two peaks, at an elevation of under 4,000'. Someone later suggested a military school graduation fly-by, but on a Tuesday? Seemed like it wasn't routine, but as I said, what do I know... Perhaps there was something in the news that I'm just not aware of happening. No mushroom clouds were seen from Cole Mountain's peak so I'm hoping all is well. Anyone have any insight? Anyways, we kept hiking on, with 9 miles left after the long climb of both peaks. Coming off the summit of the second mountain, we dipped down into a gorgeous field called Hog Camp Gap where we sat for a while basking in the sun and talking to other hikers. It truly looked like an amazing place to tent for the night under the stars, or even under the big tree with a picturesque swing hanging from its biggest branch. Alas, miles to be made, we hiked on. The rest of the afternoon was comprised of two pretty gradual climbs over 6 miles. Two miles from the shelter we were aiming for Pneumo and I came across a campsite along a river where a mammoth tree was growing on top of an equally mammoth boulder. I posted a photo, but it looked almost mythical with the root structure and placement. Nature sure does have a way of showing how amazing it is without any influence from us.
A mile out from Seeley-Woodworth shelter, my destination for the evening, my right shin started hurting. Not badly, but enough for me to be aware of its presence. The terrain wasn't difficult at this point so I took it easy and we slowed down. Pulling into the shelter at just after 1900hrs, we said hello to the two other occupants, both section hikers, and got to work cooking dinner and collecting water. I ate a lot, and am thinking I need to adjust how much food I buy to account for these 25 mile days instead of supplying the same as I did for my 15-19 mile days from the first month of hiking. I believe there's a resupply half a mile off the trail tomorrow that offers free showers, so I'll hit that up for some trail food. If not, there's Waynesboro, VA in two days where I could hitchhike in, resupply, and hit up a place like Buffalo Wild Wings or a pizza joint to feel a bit human. As of now the plan is to enter into the Shenandoah National Park on Thursday, which will be a great feat in the grand scheme of Virginia. I'm 15 days into the state, and only have 202 miles left to go. The Shenandoah section will be an exciting new section of trail, home to some welcomed and different terrain.
It was great having someone to hike with and talk to today. I've got a feeling Pneumo and I will hike together for the next few days at least. No more talking aloud to myself! Storms are predicted for tomorrow, but as I write this (0130 AM) the skies are clear above the shelter. We shall see what tomorrow brings. There's a 3,000' drop in elevation from The Priest mountain, the last point at which the Appalachian Trail is over 4,000 feet until Vermont. From the gap below the trail climbs right back up... Surprise surprise.
One day at a time, one foot in front of the other.