Day mileage: 31
AT total mileage: 766.3
Time: 11 hours
Tim the 'Tool Man' Taylor (TV's 'Home Improvement') would introduce today's blog by enthusiastically saying: "Everybody know what day it is?!" To which a large studio audience would reply: "Sunday Challenge Day!" As you well know this is a written blog so there's no studio audience, so I'll just be reminding you that today was Sunday Challenge. Today followed suit to the weeks before, and fit the 'challenge' aspect to a T. Not only did my hike incorporate distance (31 miles), and time (11 hours), but it also had some serious climbing. Between mile 21 and 31 I hiked over 5,400 feet of elevation gain. On a normal day on the trail this would be a serious workout, but to do it after already having done 7 hours and 21 miles of hiking, it was a mammoth undertaking.
I slept relatively soundly given the fact that the hiker named Symphony was snoring louder than almost anyone I've ever met. I woke up early but didn't get out of bed until around 6:45, at which point I packed up my gear, eating a Pop-Tart before hitting the trail. Having looked at the elevation plot for the day, I knew that my first 15 miles or so wouldn't be strenuous. The next 100 miles of trail cross over the Blue Ridge Parkway quite frequently, and during times when it does the trail is relatively fair and even. After a slight 3 mile climb of 1,000' or so out of the Wilson Creek shelter, the trail leveled off and meandered along for my first hours on the trail. The first time the trail crossed with Blue Ridge Parkway (labeled BRP on maps) it caught me off guard. You exit the woods onto a perfectly paved two lane road, with no direction as to where the trail rejoins the woods. It took me 5 minutes or so to figure out where I was supposed to be, a small inlet off the road some 600 feet down the parkway, very poorly marked. For the next 6 miles or so the trail would dance alongside the BRP, never more than 200 feet from the road itself, although dipping above and beyond the elevation of the pavement. It was quite strange to hear the somewhat constant hum of cars and motorcycles buzzing by. I spent my morning hiking at just around 3 mph, a product of the terrain, and daydreaming. A lot of people ask what I think about all day and I know we've covered the fact that it isn't soul searching or curing famine or disease. Today I was daydreaming about.... You guessed it.... Driving. Seeing the curved road, gorgeous vistas, and 'sporty' Sunday cars out driving, it was hard not to get lost in the thought of having my own car down here.
Speeding down straightaways in 4th gear, never even touching 5th or 6th, eyeing a tight left turn ahead, punching in the clutch and thrusting the shifter forwards into 3rd, feeling the engine braking while the rev needle sweeps the dial, seatbelt tightening around me as both hands grip the wheel, into the turn with only an 18" guardrail keeping me from disappearing off a cliff, wide and sticky summer tires gripping the hot road while flirting with the solid yellow line, sport suspension banking into the turn at speeds still easily twice the marked limit, holding fast as the vehicle tracks like a roller-coaster car on rails, out of the turn and back into a straightaway, gas pedal practically to the floor as the tach cruises up towards redline before depressing the clutch and throwing the shifter back into 4th as the car pulls away and continues racing off towards the next turn on the curvaceous and perfectly paved scenic parkway...
I've said it before and I'll say it again. I miss driving.
Anyway. Eventually the trail left the roadside and climbed up a thousand feet or so where I came across the Cove Mountain shelter. I stopped there for lunch, alone again, as I still haven't seen anyone else on the trail. I lingered a bit longer than I should have however I wasn't too concerned in the moment. It was just after noon and I had hiked 15 miles. Truthfully, looking at the elevation gains ahead, I wasn't too eager to hit the trail. I took a self portrait at that empty shelter, much in the way that Christopher 'Alexander Supertramp' McCandless did during his Alaskan adventures before his demise in the early 90s. I have no intentions on dying here but I figured I should start taking self portraits. I pressed on, with a thousand foot drop in elevation to a gorgeous creek running past the trail. From there I climbed pointlessly, per usual, a thousand feet before dropping back down into a gap. Stopping briefly at Bryant Ridge shelter for a snack, I marveled at the size (20+ hiker capacity) and craftsmanship of this shelter. A post and beam structure with open floor plans, it truly was gorgeous. The fun began here, with the next 10 miles including nearly a mile of elevation gain. When I left the Bryant shelter I had been hiking for 7 hours and 22 minutes, having hiked 21 miles, and it was 1600hrs exactly. My fear was making the next 10 miles before dark, as I wasn't sure the speed I'd be able to maintain while climbing such heights over such distance. I set off at an even and fair pace, and was surprised to still make just over 2 miles an hour. I've attached an elevation plot below so you can see the climbs, but it basically went up a thousand feet before shortly leveling off and then climbing again- 4 separate times, with smaller climbs interspersed. At 1800hrs I passed by Cornelius Creek shelter but didn't stop, determined to make it the next 5 miles to Thunder Hill shelter before dark. I had to stop and get water, as the supply at Thunder Hill was noted on the maps as 'inconsistent', and then continued climbing up Apple Orchard Mountain towards its peak and an FAA tower. There's a picture of that below as well, and if you're interested I'm willing to bet that my friend Dave will at some point comment on this post with a link to what kind of radar tower it is. I reached the summit at 2010hrs exactly, and looked at what was to be a gorgeous sunset. I took some photos and rushed on, determined to make it the mile to the shelter. About halfway to the shelter I had a change of heart, deciding I'd rather watch the sun set. I can hike as far and as quickly as I want, but to pass up the opportunity for an unobstructed sunset view at the top of a mountain overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway, that'd be very unlike me. Despite my distance from the peak I turned around and quickly hiked back up, knowing I had very little time before the sun actually set.
I sat on the grass at the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain, listening to the birds chirp and FAA radar whir behind me, and watched a beautiful sunset across the valley and mountain ridges. Setting up my tent, I cooked a broccoli and cheese pasta in the vestibule, staying warm with my lower half snuggled into my sleeping bag. Bed will be late tonight, probably 2230 or so, but I had a great and challenging day, proving my capabilities to myself, and ending the day with a beautiful sunset.
I don't know what tomorrow shall bring... certainly onward, and hopefully a little less upward.