Day mileage: 23
AT total mileage: 270.5
Time: 10.5 hours
Today has been my favorite day on the trail thus far, for a multitude of reasons, which I'll cover at the end of my soliloquy.
I woke up a few times throughout the night, lying under the open sky, watching stars flicker from millions of miles away. This is an experience that isn't easily achieved from the Greater Boston area, so I'm making every use of the lack of light pollution. By going 'cowboy', breaking down camp is easier. Unavoidable contact from the morning sun makes sure of an early rising, and after a blueberry bagel with the last of my peach preserves, Crusoe and I hit the trail. It took less than a mile of hiking to start toying with the idea of hiking the 26 miles to Hot Springs, NC today. We settled on attempting the 23 mile trek to a shelter that's then only 3 miles from town, making Main Street easily accessible Wednesday morning. In theory, this was an exciting, challenging, probably attainable goal.
After some serious uphill climbing, we emerged into a totally new Appalachian Trail from anything I've experienced yet. The trail abruptly exists the woods and begins traipsing through rolling grass fields. I can only assume this is private land, but for a few miles we followed fence posts with the guiding White Blaze of the A.T. painted on them. As we hiked, thick cold fog moved in and began flying by us, hugging the curves of the hills and creating some incredible views as we moved along. As we exited the foggy field, we entered another Enchanted Forest of tall barren trees surrounded with perfectly still and thick fog. I kid you not, these sights are chill-inducing. They look quite eerie. What makes eerie hiking better? Finding a zip lock bag, fashioned with a blue gift bow, with freshly baked sugar cookies sitting at the base of a tree. Crusoe and I each enjoyed a cookie before heading on. We stopped for lunch at 11:30 with 9 miles already under our belt. Rain was steady at this point, and we ate with hikers Hungry and Bartender, both of whom are finishing hikes they began in June of 2014 at Katahdin in Maine before being kicked off the trail due to the harsh winter. They'll be finishing their hikes in a few short weeks. Whitey also arrived, and we spoke for a while before Crusoe and I headed back onto the trail, recognizing the 14 miles we still had to walk before getting to our desired shelter. By our quick pace we covered 3.5 miles in just under an hour, coming into a place called Lemon Gap, where we met a few guys setting up a tarp by their pick-up truck. I'm a pretty big conversationalist, so it didn't take long before we were invited to hang out and enjoy some soda and fruit as they fired up their charcoal grill for burgers and hot dogs. Being the calorie burning hikers that we are, we graciously accepted and got a fire pit fire going while they cooked.
It's important to me that I take a minute to talk about these guys. The pick-up truck they drove was vinyl labeled with the words 'Connected Warriors Foundation'. Further conversation would inform us that it's a non-profit organization based in Annapolis that works to get wounded veterans involved in social groups to help with social anxiety and self-seclusion often experienced with PTSD. The three guys offering us food were all veterans working with Connected Warriors, and were acting as "Sherpas" (their word) for a group of 7 wounded veterans who were doing a multi-day section hike of the Appalachian Trail. The organization is sponsored by groups like Google and Amazon as well as many others, who allow these soldiers to be transported around the country to participate in exciting group adventures like this one at no out-of-pocket cost to them. Not only were they cooking for their own group, adding some edible excitement to their rainy hiking day, but they also went out of their way to make us comfortable and plentifully fed. Words cannot describe how amazing this group of people are. Trail magic is one thing, and an incredible aspect of the Appalachian Trail... But an outside group to take us in during a rain storm, feed us, give us cold drinks, chips, veggies, and warm our spirits... This is something I will not soon forget. If you're the type who donates to great causes, I'd encourage you to look at their website if it interests you: www.ConnectedWarrior.org - also, they got some photos of me so I may be on their Facebook page... That in itself is interesting, haha.
We hung out with these soldiers for close to an hour before deciding we needed to push on if we had any intention of making it the remaining 12 miles before dark. We departed Lemon Gap at 1500hrs, and climbed. The afternoon would be comprised of two huge ascents, two huge descents, and some typically inconsistent up-downs through a low mountain range. Crusoe and I climbed these mountains, disappearing into more incredibly thick fog, and emerged at summits that were unlike anything I've ever seen. Again following blazed fence posts, we walked by low bushes covered with thousands of spiderwebs glistening with beads of moisture from the thick moving fog. Closer inspection would show small black and red spiders with small bugs captive in their webs. We re-entered the forest on the other side of the peak, and descended to a small gap hidden in tall pine trees before climbing back out to ascend the 1,000' to the peak of Bluff Mountain. Again the fog and rain got thicker the higher we climbed, until we summited and visibility of any sort was almost impossible. It was truly a sight to see. Trunks of trees disappeared 15 or so feet off the ground, trails seemed to vanish in front of us, and the wind still whipped the fog through at incredible speeds. We didn't linger before beginning our 4-mile, 2,600 foot descent. Crusoe and I didn't spend much time talking today, instead migrating off to our own little worlds with music playing through our own sets of headphones. Despite this minor disconnect, we still seemed to appreciate each other's awe at the scenery we passed.
Upon reaching the bottom of the mountain, we climbed from a gap back to a smaller, meandering mountain ridge that would take us the remaining 4 miles to our shelter. At this point, 19 miles and many solid climbs into the day, it was depressing to see we still had so many miles left. Regardless, we hiked on, arriving at Deer Park Mountain shelter at 1930hrs. As my good friend Keegan would quotably say, referring to his feet after a long day, "my dogs [were] barking". Laziness won with me tonight, and dinner was a combination of Ramens and Mac & Cheese, cooked in the same pot at the same time, with both the 'chicken flavor' sodium packet and both cheesy sauce packets stirred in. Honestly- it was divine. Due to tomorrow's time in town including a resupply, I also ate an extra honey bun, as well as miscellaneous foods occupying space in my bag. Dessert was 'precooked' bacon strips that hiker Cheesepuff had bought at a grocery store in the last town. How easy it is to please a tired and hungry hiker.
Today didn't have any sunshine. Birds barely chirped, squirrels hid from the rain, and soggy hikers hunkered down under layers of waterproof Goretex clothing. On this same day, however, rivers flowed wildly, flowers blossomed, green hillsides glistened with countless water droplets, and eerie fog hugged every inch of visible terrain. I made a dozen new friends, experienced two different 'trail magic' phenomenons, shared an interesting dinner with great fellow hikers, and pushed my own limits by achieving another 'longest day yet' record. As I've said, these are the days I'll remember. Bedtime now, again under the clear sky as clouds have moved on, leaving us with a flawlessly beautiful day tomorrow.
As free as I'll ever be.