Day mileage: 23
AT total mileage: 511.7
Time: 10.5 hours
My plan to rise early failed miserably. The alarm went off at 5 AM, and I got out of my sleeping bag at 5:45. I packed quickly and hit the trail at 6:30 with the intention of putting in some good mileage today.
The trail followed through more of the enchanted forest type of woods, descending down into Elk Garden from Buzzard Rock. Crossing over a two lane state road, I passed through a gate and into a sprawling pasture filled with cows. After taking a photo of a baby cow I cautiously hiked around 'mudpies' through the field for a mile or so before tucking back into the woods. At the edge of the pasture the trail entered into Jefferson National Forest, and began a four mile but relatively easy climb up Mount Rogers. Although the trail side-skirted the top of the mountain, there was a 1/2 mile side trail which have hikers the opportunity to summit the highest mountain in Virginia, coming in at 5,729 feet. Not long after entering into a bald section just shy of the peak's side trail, I came across yet another first on the A.T. Entering into the Grayson Highlands, hikers find themselves smack in the middle of packs of wild ponies. I ran into Soleil, her dad Cinqo (he's visiting from Germany to hike for 5 days), and some other local section hikers, and a group of 15 or 20 ponies. Some were sunbathing, some grazing, and some were right up in person with us seeing if we had any snacks. Despite not having anything for him to eat, I became good friends with a pony who I quickly learned liked having his ears scratched. There are a few good photos of this happening.
After spending a while with the ponies, including a very young foal following its mother around, I continued on another mile to the Thomas Knob Shelter. I had a late breakfast, as it was 10 am or so, and spoke with Cinqo about his work. He's an air traffic controller who after working for decades in the US moved to Germany to train new controllers. While I don't know a ton about air control, I fly frequently and have read a lot about what he does. He was surprised to find out that I'm aware of the '7 mishaps' rule for commercial airline crashes (this is an aviation rule stating that airplanes don't just crash, and that 90% of the time there are 7 individual mistakes that are made between 1st officers and the pilot before a plane will crash). We discussed the Malaysian jet at length, and he agreed that my theory is plausible. It was enjoyable and thoroughly stimulating conversation.
I kept hiking, with a few miles on the Grayson Highlands left in front of me. It was very difficult at times to follow the trail, as the Highlands are more of a visitor park than a true Appalachian Trail devoted area. Signage was at times non-existant, and I got frustrated at chasing down the trail. Once I managed to stay on track, the Highlands took me through some very interesting terrain. It was very dry terrain that was broken up by some serious rock climbing, at times scrambling on all fours to get my weight up and over boulders and massive rock faces. There was one point where the trail cut literally between two massive rocks, 20 or so feet high on both sides, in a tight fit known as Fatman Squeeze. I stopped upon exiting the park to speak with a day-hiker who also thru-hiked in 2003. When I went to put my bag on, the right shoulder strap snapped out of the skeletal frame of the bag, not only breaking in one place but three at once bIf you've been following for a while, you'll remember that this happened 2 weeks ago just outside of Hot Springs as well. Of the 5 mounting options for the strap, I'm now limited to one single space. Exceptionally angry, I got both shoulder straps to match their mounting positions, and hurried on to the next shelter, worried the whole time about what I'll do to fix this problem. Unfortunately, being in a national park, there was no cell service for me to call Granite Gear (bag manufacturer) to get a new one sent out. A quick lunch at the Wise Shelter and I was back on the road, aiming to get another 10 miles under my belt before the end of the day.
Immediately before the Wise Shelter, something rather exciting happened... Mile 500. It seems to me like just the other day that I posted about mile 400 being attained. (Realistically it was Friday, so it was in fact pretty recently). Once again it was incredibly unceremonious, so I took a few minutes to break up some fallen sticks and mark a big '500' on the trail as a point for other hikers to celebrate at. Soleil later told me she was excited to see it, and was happy that I put it on the trail. I simultaneously can't believe I'm already this far, and yet I still have so far to go.
I flew through the rest of my afternoon, arriving at Old Orchard Shelter at 1530hrs and snacking before continuing on the 5 more miles to the Hurricane Mountain Shelter that's on the other side of a large elevation gain as the trail climbed out of another gap with an empty state road. I climbed this 1,500' climb at upwards of 4 miles an hour, hoping to reach the top with enough time to call Granite Gear if I had cell service. My concern was missing the 5pm closing time that most east coast businesses have. At 12 minutes past 5 I crested the top of the mountain and rejoiced to hear my phone go off with noises of incoming texts and emails. I quickly called Granite Gear (I learned they're Minnesota based) and they'll be overnighting me a replacement exoskeleton piece for my bag, shipping it to a restaurant in Atkins, VA that accepts hiker mail. I'm not sure what this will cost me, I did have to pay for the quick shipping, but it doesn't matter to me. If this current piece shits the bed I'm dead in the water, so having a new part on Friday will allow me to continue on without worrying.
I descended a mile down into a crevice between two mountains, full well expecting to find a shelter full of hikers cooking their dinners. I couldn't have been more off: the Hurricane Mountain Shelter was completely vacant. I had the place to myself. I was slightly thrilled, slightly saddened to not have any of my friends here. I cooked dinner, and set up my tent inside the shelter to ward off any invasions from mice. I read through the log book as I ate and packed up my bag before brushing my teeth and getting ready for a long and good night's sleep. Unfortunately, we can't all be that lucky.
I had the shelter to myself literally until a few minutes before I intended to go to sleep, at which point Crankster showed up. This wouldn't have been a problem but another hiker named Blacksmith also came... I don't care for his company, and he's exceptionally loud. It was rather annoying that he continued talking well past dark, which goes against the 'hiker midnight' rule of sunset. I kind of wish I'd had the place to myself just so I could sleep in peace. As I type this they're chatting, loudly enough that I can hear them despite my headphones being in with music on. Grrrrr.
Regardless- tomorrow I'm aiming for a place called the Partnership Shelter where there's a shower available, and a local pizza place that will deliver to the shelter. I'm going to try and hike early to beat the supposed 90 degree heat that's anticipated.
I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more.