Day mileage: 34
AT total mileage: 952.2
Time: 12 hours
Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I inform you of the fact that bears live in the woods. After walking over 900 miles through a half dozen National Forests, designated 'Wildernesses', night hikes through the Smokies, Blue Ridges, and Shenandoahs, and listening to hundreds of stories of other hikers seeing these creatures, I'd all but given up hope on their existence being real. Alas, as I hiked alone last evening, the sun a mere 15 minutes from its descent behind the horizon, I heard a rustling in the bushes to my right. As I turned (and squinted.. need me some damn glasses) I saw a big fuzzy black butt hurry off deeper into the woods. Looking closer I noticed a second bear attempting to hide behind a tree, staring out at me on the trail. With 50 or so feet between us and a lot of vegetation no clear photo was to be taken, but I got a blurry photo on my dSLR to at least confirm my dreams had come true. Bears exist in the woods, I can now die happy.
Pneumo and I both started waking up around 5:30 AM this morning, knowing we had a long day ahead. The forest floor where we had set camp was unbelievably comfortable, but damp. My rain fly for the tent was dripping water, so I'll have to find time to lay it out to dry. We packed up shop and hit the trail at just after 6:30, an hour or so earlier than usual. Passing by a cemetery (didn't know national parks had cemeteries..) we climbed up into a ridge line that we'd spend most of the day traversing. We climbed up and hiked along past the park's Big Meadows Campground and watched dozens of gargantuan tents come alive with families and young kids excited for breakfast. Sadly, nobody invited us to join them. We stopped shortly for a water break and Pneumo noticed a deer tick on his lower abdomen. This is more problematic than the wood ticks I've been finding and puts us on high alert as they're much smaller, harder to find, and can carry Lyme. Removing it, he borrowed a sharpie to mark where it had been just in case the area starts showing signs of infection. We stopped at Rock Springs Hut around 8:30 with 5 miles already under our feet for the day. We had decided to limit out stops in order to save time throughout the day, and only remained there for 20 minutes or so while snacking and watching busy weekend hikers clumsily pack up their stuff. Heading back out, we climbed continuously up to Stony Man mountain, ultimately the highest point on the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoahs at an elevation of 3,837'. This section of the trail was flooded with holiday weekend hikers, from small children to those needing assistance of walkers. I do often wonder how we look to them. We passed by the summit and continued a mile or so down to a rocky cliff overlooking Stony Man. While hiking down this section of trail a man walking with his wife called out (referring to my Red Sox hat) "It's a shame you're not a Yankees fan!" to which, without missing a beat, I replied "It's a shame you are!" - his wife apparently thought this was the funniest reply she'd ever heard and I was complimented on my rhetoric. At this point it was 11:30 so we stopped and enjoyed a lunch in the sun on the rocks, watching vacationers come and go, taking group photos and the like. One dad was exceptionally overbearing towards his teenage kids who were 'wandering too close to the edge'. He freaked out at one point and walked over with a pointed finger extended at the end of a straight arm, and the kid sat down like a puppy who knew he'd been caught peeing on the rug. Some people really are strange.
Hiking back into the woods and away from the families was nice, but no matter where we turned there were always more tourists. By the end of our day we would end up passing by two thru-hikers and well over 100 weekenders on the trail. 34 miles of trail and 2 thru-hikers... It's amazing. Anyway, we climbed and descended ridges, bypassing overlooks due to it being the same scene of the same valley every time. On the way down the trail from a mountain called Mary's Rock we had a great conversation with a couple from the Boston area about the hike. The woman had asked if they were 'almost there' and I asked her to specify where 'there' was, which sparked them asking where we had come from. All in all today I met 10 people from the Boston area: Lynn, Swampscott, Gloucester, Cambridge... and a guy from Connecticut who wanted his allegiance to Red Sox Nation to be known.
The afternoon included another 18 miles of hiking for us, and a Wayside gift shop at which to grab snacks and short-order grill food. Pneumo and I set our sights on the Wayside and hauled ass over 3 separate mountains to accomplish the mileage before they closed at 1900hrs. Despite having walked 29 miles already and desperately wanting some fried chicken, the kitchen had inevitably closed 15 minutes prior to our arrival. In a depressed state I bought some snacks, and an absolutely welcomed Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Hanging out for an hour, airing my feet out and noting some discoloration likely due to a pair of socks that need to be replaced, I realized I still had 5.7 miles to hike. I left Pneumo as he was cooking dinner, and headed out onto the trail around 1930hrs. It was in this first mile stretch that I ran across the bears. Having seen them, checking that off my Appalachian Trail list of things to do, I shifted gears and hiked a quick 3 mph into the night. Watching a sorbet sunset from atop a rock at Rattlesnake Point, I descended deep into the woods for the remainder of my hike. Had you told me when I was a little kid that I'd be hiking alone in a pitch black national forest late into the night, I'd tell you that you were crazy. As I hiked along, my only source of light from my LED, I pondered what I'd do if the batteries ran out. Silly thoughts like that kept me occupied until 2145 when I came upon the entrance to the shelter. It was at this time that I nearly had a heart attack as the silence was broken by a deer who hopped out of the woods and jumped across the trail. Whew! Heart rate doubled.
The shelter was fast asleep, with the glow of an unattended fire (this bothered me) glowing in the foreground. It was tough in the dark to find somewhere to tent, so I pitched my MSR tent on a sloped section next to the shelter itself. Falling asleep quickly I was woken by Pneumo an hour later when he arrived from the Wayside. For some reason I was up a few times between arrival and midnight due to the feeling I was going to throw up. Luckily nothing ended up coming of that, and I'll hopefully sleep soundly for the rest of the night.
Tomorrow's an easier day, only 24 or so miles. Hope everyone has an enjoyable Memorial Day. I sure so wish I was home with the Jeep, roof down, American flag blowing back off the CB antenna, and country music playing loudly. I'll just wait for Labor Day, I suppose.