Day mileage: 20.2
AT total mileage: 230.0
Time: 9.5 hours
I have officially hiked a 20 mile day on the Appalachian Trail.
When I went to sleep last night my world was a cold, rainy, and windy place. This might help you understand why I was so confused to wake to the heat of the morning sun warming my tent, and a bright sky surrounding me. At some point overnight the skies cleared and left us hikers with an absolutely beautiful Easter Sunday. As we cooked breakfast a thru-hiker named Rabbit handed out Jelly Beans. It even smelled like an Easter morning as one hiker was frying Spam, giving off the aroma of bacon cooking on the stove. Nobody seemed to be in a rush to hit the trail, and we all left stuff hanging on tree branches drying in the sun until departing at 9 am or so. Again due to the limitations of only staying in shelters in the Smokies, our basic hiking options for the day were 6 or 12 miles. We agreed to do the 12 mile hike to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, where we'd arrive early and relax for the day.
Our first stop this morning was at a gorgeous rocky vista called Charlie's Bunion. Due to our still being within a few hiking miles of a popular visitors center and parking lot, there were two early-morning hikers already there. These girls were in their mid 20s, having road tripped down from Detroit for a few days, and were extremely inquisitive as to how, why, etc, anyone would hike the Appalachian Trail. We sat there and talked for a while, having them take our photo with Simba and Alpine Monkey (German and Austrian thru-hikers), and then actually joined in on one of the girl's projects. She's apparently the organizer of a fitness/dietary weight loss program called Break the Weight, and has been filming 'a dance a day' for 70 someodd days now to promote physical activity. She wanted our involvement for today's video, so sure enough Crusoe, Simba, Alpine, and myself joined in dancing on top of Charlie's Bunion (cautiously, so as not to plummet to our dancing demise) while being video taped for YouTube. It probably looked as funny as it sounds. Anyways, the girls gave us some Easter trail magic of Starbursts candy and some granola bars, and we were on our way. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful vista around 1230 and after some gorgeous, challenging, elongated climbs back into the 6,000' altitude regions, pulled into camp around 1530. Interesting fact: since entering the Great Smoky National Park, we've spent less than 10 miles of trail under 5,000'.
At some point during the day I'd broached the idea with Crusoe about taking an afternoon break and pushing on to the next shelter an hour or so before sunset. Many people lately have spoken about night-hiking, and the idea was exciting. He agreed, and we planned out a 1900hrs departure, hypothetically landing us at the next shelter 8 miles down the trail at an hour or so before midnight. I spent my afternoon lying in the sun on my sleeping pad, again pretending I was at the beach, and then we prepared our dinners before continuing our hike. We did get a few crazy looks for our plans, but also gained interest from a 22 year old Danish hiker named Snailman (he's actually quite the fast hiker, just very slow to get up in the morning) who decided to join along. Crusoe and I hit the trail and climbed to a great elevation to watch the sunset from the trail. I finally had some cell service to get email and the sort, but we literally had miles to go before we slept so we didn't linger past the sun's beautifully colorful disappearance. Temperatures initially dropped enough to warrant fleece layers, but we shed them not long after due to being quite comfortable moving in the chill of the early night. About an hour after dark Snailman came up behind (mind you the trail is pitch black aside light from our LED headlamps, so initially all we really saw was a small light gaining on us from behind) and joined us for the rest of the way. It was a bit tricky navigating rocky, muddy, tree-rooted trails at night, but we carefully kept a good pace and made it the 8 miles in three and a half hours. Conversations with Snailman ranged from American healthcare to gun control, cars to college, and eventually how he came across hiking the Appalachian Trail. He apparently read about it on Google just 5 months ago. We quietly arrived at the shelter and looked around for somewhere to sleep. The shelter itself was full, so we decided to 'cowboy it', hiker term for a ground pad and sleeping bag only, lying under the stars. Luckily for us it's a new moon, so the stars are brilliantly shining without the moon interrupting. There wasn't a lot of even ground that wasn't already taken by tents, so I'll spend tonight sliding downhill a bit. C'est la vie.
As I fall asleep writing this, I'm able to be in my sleeping bag, and uninterruptedly stare into the vast sky at what seems to be a million different glistening stars. The lack of ambient light pollution is perfect for this, and the sky is clear enough that I'm actually able to watch a satellite orbit in space.
These are incredible moments, after wonderful and noteworthy days of hiking, that I hope to remember for a long time. Tomorrow by lunch we'll be beyond the northern boundary, completing our 71 mile traverse of the National Park in just 4 days. Onto more mountains, more interesting people, and more amazing experiences.
Off to bed, I think that satellite is going by again.