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Archive for the ‘Appalachian Trail’ Category

Non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Day Twelve, June 17, Upper Laurel Fork Camp, 13.2 miles: I rise early, eager to leave Mountain Harbor and return to the peace of the trail. Waving to ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy,’ we will meet at Mountaineer Shelter (9.3 miles) for the night, I head for the highway. The prospects for a lift are slim, so I trudge uphill without trying.

The first few trail miles negotiate strips of disturbed land snaking among small streets emanating from US 19E and state road 1302. Overgrown fields, power lines, and a cemetery are evidence of human habitation close at hand. Poison ivy, further proof of civilization’s intrusion to the natural order, is also prevalent. The fields are in sore need of that weed-whacking couple I saw near Beauty Spot. Grasses and other plants like Black-eyed Susan approach waist height or higher and carry a full load of dew this morning, soaking my pants within minutes. Stems and leaves catch on my trekking poles.

Meadow plants are drenched in dew.

Meadow plants are drenched in dew.

The drag of fighting through resistant herbage, an uphill trajectory, and my lack of energy due to poor rest and no dinner make a debilitating combination. I still manage a respectable 3.8 miles in about two hours, crossing Buck Mountain Road with its church visible on the right. My brain, however, is not in the game today. Two miles later, I walk right past the 0.1 mile side trail to Jones Falls, a lovely spot well worth the visit. Oops. Maybe some other day.

Path Rush, a small grass-like plant loves the disturbance and compaction found along the A.T. A different texture and darker color from other weedy, trail-side species, it stands out lining either side of and even intruding into the dirt track. The trail sidles along the Elk River for a short stretch with adjacent flat campsites. From the river, it is a very gradual rise to Mountaineer Shelter through the forest.

Church at Buck Mountain Road

Church at Buck Mountain Road

I startle a Ruffed Grouse who startles me with its thrumming wing beats. During lunch, a mouthy Pileated Woodpecker treats me to his extensive oratory. I scan the trees looking for him throughout my break, and finally set eyes on him right at the end. A Scarlet Tanager and Black-throated Green Warbler attempt to get a few words in edgewise. In the distance, an American Robin is less deterred by the loquacious woodpecker and sings enthusiastically.

Since Erwin,TN, the trail has remained above 4,000 feet. Descent from the Roan massif puts the A.T. below that mark where it will remain for the next several days of my hike. Mid June temperatures are running noticeably higher than normal with an increase in humidity. There has also been little precipitation in the mountains. Rain events have been short-lived and widely scattered.

Darker green Path Rush lines the trail.

Darker green Path Rush lines the trail.

Today I officially pass the halfway mark…my twelfth day on trail with 11 more to go. Psychologically, this countdown is important. I learned in 2013 that three weeks is likely to be my enjoyability limit. By that time, I’ll be ready to go home. I’ve already been thinking of my sweet little Siamese kitty all alone in Nashville and even begun plotting how I’ll clean my gear. Not the best signs with half the trip still ahead.

While I’m pleased to have reached this point, I am also very tired from last night. Due to the weather, I find myself sweating much more despite the far less physically demanding terrain. I’ve been guzzling water all day. After a long lunch communing with the birds, I reluctantly hoist my pack and head for the shelter.

Elk River

Elk River

Mountaineer Shelter is located in a very unlikely spot. Most shelters are near a spring or stream on a plot of land somewhat wide and level. Positioned near Mountaineer Falls, this shelter has the requisite water source, but the surrounding landscape is neither wide nor level. Tucked within steeply sloping hillsides, it can be tricky to simply walk around. A depression below the shelter could handle a few tents.

Despite the sloping terrain, Mountaineer is one of the newer and nicer shelters I’ve seen since Hot Springs. Reminiscent of Curly Maple Gap, it’s a double decker accommodating 14 with a covered sitting/cooking area. The shelter’s front is perched at the edge of the slope downhill toward the fire ring and tenting area. A lack of convenient bathroom options appears to be the main drawback.

Mountaineer Shelter

Mountaineer Shelter

I arrive around 1:30 and spend time simply resting. The trail profile for the next 8 miles undulates gently at 3500 feet. My plan tomorrow calls for a Herculean 17.5 miles including a difficult rocky section near Laurel Falls. I’ve certainly got time, if not much energy, to knock a few of tomorrow’s miles off today should there be suitable stop.

The next shelter is nearly 10 miles away, and its water source is noted as “a long way downhill.” That option is a non-starter. A few campsites are indicated in between. One is four miles away next to a ‘waterfall’ on Upper Laurel Fork. I could manage this.

Pipsissewa

Pipsissewa

While plotting my options, a man and his son from Bristol, TN, stop at the shelter. They are out for a few days to get in shape for further hikes later in the year. We chat a bit. They too are interested in taking advantage of the afternoon and like the idea of the waterfall campsite. I hate passing up a night at a decent shelter, especially considering my current state, but the chance to get a leg up on tomorrow is too enticing. I head for the spring to fill my water bladder and bottle.

At the spring, I hear a whistle and turn around. It’s ‘Roachy.’ She and ‘Storm’ have arrived and want to keep going as well but need a food break first. I’m ready to hit the trail and tell all four I’ll see them at the campsite later this afternoon.

Park bench on the A.T.

Park bench on the A.T.

It is easy hiking through this section. A half mile from the campsite, a vista to the south opens where a wood and metal park bench has been mounted trailside for quiet contemplation, allegedly the only such bench on the A.T. I sit for a long while enjoying the peaceful view. An American Holly is flowering overhead, dropping its small spent blossoms like bits of confetti.

One would think a campsite at a waterfall would be fairly easy to locate, but the trail crosses a stream conveniently identified as Upper Laurel Fork on a sign tacked to the bridge. There is no waterfall, but there are two very small cleared spots that could be campsites. There is also a flagged side trail that leads to a hostel, noted in Miller at the waterfall location. I pause a moment wondering if this might be the site and decide to continue. Surely there is something better. The trail follows Upper Laurel Fork and is often wet and miry. In about 0.1 to 0.2 mile, I see a wider opening ahead and hear the sound of fast water. The “waterfall” is a small cascade, the stream pouring past a progression of descending rocks maybe 15 to 20 feet. A fire ring cinches the site and there is room for all five of us. Miller’s guide apparently conflated the two spots.

View from the park bench

View from the park bench

I begin setting up my tent and search for that ever elusive food bag limb. A dead hemlock branch is within tossing distance on the slope across from the campsite. I toss my line and hook the branch. However, the end of the line tangles and hovers above my reach. I must pull it down and try again. The tangled end catches on a tiny branchlet and instantly knots. *&%#@! I tug, I pull, I bounce, I curse, I throw things. Some of the tangle releases, but the knot remains firm. AAARRRGGGHHH!!!

Cascading "waterfall"

Cascading “waterfall”

The others have not arrived, and I begin to suspect that they have been fooled by the small clearings. Carrying my food bag, I walk back to the bridge. There they are trying to figure out how to make those tiny sites work. When we are all at the right camp, ‘Storm’ helps me with that dang food line. I’m sure I’ll have to cut it and want to do so as near the end knot as possible. I even attempt to lash my knife to a stick in hopes of leaving as little rope as I can stuck in that tree. ‘Storm’ tries another path. Putting his entire 6-foot heft into it, he finally gets the limb to break. Once again, I’ve retrieved my rope unscathed from what appeared to be certain shortening. I move to the other side of camp, find an ideal limb, and hang my food without angst. Wish I’d looked there first.

Fern glade

Fern glade

Day Thirteen, June 18, Braemar Castle Hostel, 14.4 miles: I’m up at first light, wanting a head start on the day’s heat and the more difficult trail conditions ahead. The five of us are going to Laurel Fork Shelter (13.6 miles), and I’m on trail at 7:05. There isn’t a breath of wind this morning and the humidity is brutal. Sweat pours down my face. It is slow going.

Despite the lack of rain, this section has many wet, miry areas that would be ankle-deep, sloppy puddles with normal precipitation. There are frequent small stream crossings and footbridges. About 1.5 miles from Moreland Gap Shelter, the trail begins a 500 foot climb up White Rocks Mountain to crest slightly over the 4,000 mark before its short, sweet descent into the gap. I’ve gone 5.7 miles in 3 hrs, 40 mins, a very disappointing performance for easy terrain during morning hours. The humidity is killing me.

Old corn crib along the trail

Old corn crib along the trail

I break for lunch at the shelter and meet ‘K-2’ from Seattle. He started in Hampton, TN, 8 miles back and is lying prone on the shelter’s platform, his shirt drenched in sweat. He hiked the majority of the A.T. last year SoBo and only lacks Hampton to Springer, just over 400 miles, to complete the trail.

‘K-2’ tells me that Laurel Fork Shelter is in horrible shape, perched on a rocky ridge with little to recommend it, and points to excellent campsites along the Laurel Fork river. Miller’s guide notes a campsite at Waycaster Spring 0.3 mile beyond the shelter. I’ve read its spring emerges from the base of a pine tree. That’s where I set my sights. I will leave ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ a note on a rock at the final stream crossing before Laurel Falls, letting them know of my plan to stay at Waycaster.

Bridge over Laurel Fork in the Pond Mountain Wilderness

Bridge over Laurel Fork in the Pond Mountain Wilderness

Atmospheric conditions have not improved. Any exertion generates profuse sweating, and my water supply is getting low. Problem is, so are area streams. At the last spring noted in the guide for the next few miles, I stop to filter water, the first time I’ve had to do so on trail. I’ve pulled into camp with very little remaining in the pack bladder, but three liters have always been sufficient to get me through the day. Not today. I will drink five liters by day’s end. The spring is a mere trickle, it takes time to collect enough water to filter.

The trail bounces just over and just under 4,000 feet for the next three miles, then begins a 2,000-foot plunge to Laurel Fork. This descent isn’t difficult and proves far less sweat inducing. The slightest incline, though, immediately activates sweat glands.  At Dennis Cove Road, the terrain flattens as the trail enters Pond Mountain Wilderness.

Pond Mountain Wilderness, located south of Watauga Lake and east of Hampton, TN, is a small section of Cherokee National Forest encompassing Pond Mountain, Pond Flats, and the gorge of Laurel Fork with its waterfall. The A.T. zigzags through its western edge traversing the river’s gorge and summiting Pond Flats before leaving the wilderness to circumnavigate one end of the lake and ascend Iron Mountain, where the trail blazes an arrow-straight, 14-mile course toward Shady Valley.

Laurel Fork

Laurel Fork

The trail is flat and smooth as a baby’s butt at the start of Pond Wilderness, a very disarming contrast to what lies ahead. Narrow passage between massive rock walls with piles of boulders at the base on either side is the first hint of things to come.  Crossing a beautiful bridge over Laurel Fork, hikers enter the sheer rock gorge, and the fun begins. First is a climb (yes, a climb) winding up steep rocks along the sheer wall of the gorge. The trail flattens out again and runs a smooth gauntlet through more canyon-like alleys of rock walls and boulders. Then the trail plummets a few hundred feet straight down on nothing but rocks strewn in an uneven, haphazard, never-ending series of steps tumbling to the river.

Hellish descent to the waterfall

Hellish descent to the waterfall

Periodically some youthful summer visitor to the falls would breeze past leaping rock to rock like some graceful mountain goat as I’m literally sweating each foot placement. Even ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ catch up and pass me here. Well, more power to them. With uncanny accuracy, the A.T. always finds a way to hit its hardest at the end of tough day. I’m plain whipped.

Laurel Falls is impressive, and I enjoy watching ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ play in Laurel Fork. However, I still have a mile to go before I can get these boots off and relax.

At Laurel Falls, the A.T. slips along the river’s waterline following a partly natural rock, partly cemented trail that hugs a massive rock face bulging into the river’s course. During flooding events, the trail disappears under rushing water. A short distance up that rocky descent is a bypass trail for such conditions. Laurel Fork Shelter is located on the bypass trail. I stick with the “real” trail and have more fun with rocks.

'Storm' splashing 'Roachy' at Laurel Falls

‘Storm’ splashing ‘Roachy’ at Laurel Falls

The cemented path at the river’s edge is narrow, and bulky packs can bump against the rock face, yet it presents an interesting and fun variation to the typical trail. The rest of the trail in this area, though, is just maddening, full of ridiculously steep, precipitous, treacherous, rock-step climbing followed by ridiculously steep and slippery descents on loose shaley rock and dirt. Two years ago I’d have been blubbering like a baby negotiating this crap. Today, I’m cursing like a stevedore.

What’s amazing to me is that Laurel Falls, an understandably popular destination, has families and folks of all ages and abilities accessing the site the same way I just did. They don’t carry 30-pound packs, but still…you’d think some effort would go into decent trail building here for safety if nothing else. The high volume of foot traffic has seriously strained trail conditions in some places. Locals and other visitors run up and down this part of the A.T. like a freeway. I see no excuse for the obvious lack of any attempt to construct a trail surface that is safer, more durable, and less damaging to the natural surroundings. Pond Mountain Wilderness could take a few cues from Chimney Tops Trail in the Smokies.

A.T. path by Laurel Fork disappears under water during flooding events.

A.T. path by Laurel Fork disappears under water during flooding events.

There are large roomy campsites by the river, and none are occupied. I remain bound for Waycaster. At last, the trail settles down next to the river and becomes a smooth forest path. Nailed to a tree, a small sign announces my destination about twenty yards from a bridge spanning Laurel Fork. A narrow campsite sits between the trail and river with the spring hidden in a dense, nearly impenetrable grotto choked in overgrowth and downed woody debris. Not exactly the idyllic spot I’d hoped for.

People pass with regularity. One young man warns of two cubs he’s seen about 300 yards up trail. The mother has to be somewhere. A quick scan of the tall, smooth-trunked trees, predicts no easy task throwing a food line tonight. ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ finally arrive. He is not impressed with Waycaster and is nervous about the number of non-hikers on trail.

A half mile further is a one-mile side trail to Hampton, TN. ‘Storm’ wants to get to Hampton and stay at Braemer Castle hostel. He and ‘Roachy’ will be leaving the trail there. As game a hiker as she has been, the high mileage days and hot, humid weather are taking their toll. I don’t really want to leave the trail. I sense that if I get off here, I won’t return, yet staying in this spot alone is not an attractive alternative. I pack my gear and walk another 1.5 miles to US Hwy 321. We find a family at the parking area willing to give us a ride to the hostel.

Braemer Castle hostel

Braemer Castle hostel

Braemer Castle, an old two-story stone building (former offices) with wooden floors and an attic fan, is run by the Brown family who also own Brown’s Grocery in town. I take a lovely private room on the second floor for $25. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ grab bunk beds on the first floor. Each floor has a kitchen and bath. The second floor features an airy back sitting room with wall to wall windows and ceiling fans, the place to be on a hot, still summer night. It’s clean, comfortable, and quiet, the best accommodations I’ve experienced thus far on the A.T. Several hikers are in residence including ‘Snuzz’ and ‘Shamrock’ who I met earlier on trail.

‘Roachy’ comes to my room and asks if I’d like to join them for dinner at Subway. Weary doesn’t begin to describe my state. I thank her very much for the invitation but decline in favor of a shower and lying prone on my bed. I’ve got a decision to make.

The next shelter, Watauga Lake, is closed due to bear activity. Signs warn hikers not to even stop along the trail for a break through that entire 5-mile section from the base of Pond Flats to the start of Iron Mountain. Water sources are scarce through this area, and the elevation change from Hampton to the next shelter, Vanderventer (15.3 miles plus the one-mile side trail), totals 6,000 feet, two-thirds of that uphill. The lady at Braemer hostel said it was very unusual for June to be this hot in the mountains and forecasts were offering no relief. I call my son Sam and talk things over with him, but it’s an academic exercise. My instincts were right at Waycaster. I’m headed home.

My room at Braemer Castle

My room at Braemer Castle

Later that evening ‘Storm’ brings me his MSR gas canisters. He can’t take them on their flight home to Houston. I follow him downstairs to say goodbye to ‘Roachy.’ A cramp in her leg has her limping, but her spirits are as cheerful as ever, even as she begins to nod off while ‘Storm’ and I talk. I give her a hug and a kiss on top the head and thank her for being such a wonderful camp mate. This young woman will go far, shining brightly all the way. I’m proud to know her.

Friend Allen Sweetser arrives the next morning in my car and graciously agrees to chauffeur me to Knoxville where I buy him a thank you lunch before returning to Nashville and little Tucker who can’t give me enough welcome home head butts and nose licks.

I covered 145.6 miles in 13 days. My plan now is to return to Hampton at some point, leave my car there, and hire a shuttle to the Groseclose exit on I-81 in Virginia. I can hike southbound through Damascus back to Hampton to finish the remaining 123 miles. It’s high time I experience trail life as a SoBo!

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Beautiful Ash Gap

Beautiful Ash Gap

Day Ten, June 15, Roan High Knob Shelter, 7.6 miles: This is it; today I climb Roan Mountain over 2,100 feet in elevation gain to arrive near the summit. First, however, is a short but steep trek up Little Rock Knob and long descent to Hughes Gap, comprising the day’s initial 3.1 miles. It is a gorgeous morning, ideal for the task ahead.

Little Rock Knob personifies the middle word in its name. Given my extreme distaste for Virginia rocks two years ago, I’m surprised to find that the trail rocks in Tennessee and North Carolina do not evoke the same venomous passion and suspect that the rocks themselves have little to do with it. Perception is important, and my perceptions are thankfully very different in 2015. Yet I also believe the trail surface here is in superior condition overall. I tip my sun hat to the hiking clubs maintaining this stretch.

Fern covered stump

Fern covered stump

From the knob, great views of the surrounding mountainous landscape to the north and west reveal an important economic driver here — Christmas tree farms. The Fraser Fir, a co-dominant in the Spruce-Fir forest ecosystem, grows well enough under cultivation at lower elevations for holiday harvesting. These plots of short dark trees organized in rows contrast the bumpy, lighter green canopy of closed forests around them. Some farms cultivate Eastern Hemlock too.

To get from Little Rock Knob through Hughes Gap to the summit of Roan Mountain, the northbound Appalachian Trail runs due south. Such compass anomalies occur with regularity as the A.T. snakes its way from one mountain to another through the Southern Appalachians. In general, we NoBos are headed north but may have to walk east, west, and even south to get there. The A.T. is anything but direct.

In 105 minutes, I am resting and snacking at Hughes Gap in preparation for the big climb. The land here has been in the Hughes family since 1878 beginning with patriarch Charles Hughes (1818-1907). A granite monument at the gap honors five members of that family, including James Frank Hughes who, if still alive as the stone suggests, is now 90.

Ash Gap Campsite

Ash Gap Campsite

The northbound ascent of Roan’s north flank comes in two stages. Beginning at 4,000 feet, the trail works its way gradually upslope over about 2.5 miles and becomes steeper near the end of the first stage, cresting at 5,500 feet. There’s no need to rush, and I take the better part of two hours to reach this point, traveling at an easy pace. The trail itself is in fine shape, alternating from the left side of the ridge (east) to the right side (west) which is breezy. Puffy white clouds race across the clear blue sky. Just shy of the crest, I pause for another snack and revel in the serenade of a Hermit Thrush. His languid phrases are intoxicating, and I linger longer than I need, hesitant to disturb the quiet. Walking again, I edge closer to his territory, taking slow steps and pausing each time I hear him sing. Such beauty is rare for me; I cannot let this opportunity pass unappreciated.

Sideways Yellow Birch

Sideways Yellow Birch

At 5,500 feet the trail descends into one of the most beautiful gaps in the mountains, Ash Gap. The forest here has two main layers, a tree canopy of beech, maple, birch, and buckeye with a lush, sensuous ground cover of sedges, most likely Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica). The wide level gap extends maybe 0.3 mile amid this northern hardwoods community and ends at the base of the final ascent. Great camps (at least two large sites) are here with a water source 0.1 mile to the right. I would climb this again in a heartbeat just to camp in Ash Gap.

The second stage of the climb is 1.1 miles and was redirected a few years ago from a straight up path along the ridge line to a much more hiker friendly route with excellent examples of trail work designed to make the journey easier and protect the Spruce-Fir community found throughout this section. There is a marvelous, monstrous Yellow Birch (Betula allegheniensis) that must be many decades old. As is the predilection of this species, it started life perched on a boulder and somehow wound up sideways, jutting one large, gravity-defying bole straight out and sending another in a more gravitationally appropriate upright manner. It has survived and apparently thrived in the cool, moist atmosphere of Roan Mountain despite the very awkward position of its rooted base.

Fabulous trail work

Fabulous trail work

Spruce-Fir forests have been fighting for their survival too. Mature Fraser Firs (Abies fraseri) lost the battle with Balsam Woolly Adelgid, leaving a forest of large Red Spruce (Picea rubens) that resembles a war zone of coarse woody debris as the white snags of dead firs come down. Fraser Fir seedlings are readily found on the forest floor, and saplings not yet old enough to fall victim to BWA fill the understory in places.

Around 1:00 p.m., I emerge from the forested shoulders of Roan and walk among the open patchwork of exposed rock, spaced trees, and grassy expanses. A side trail to the right leads to the parking area and restrooms associated with one of four main attractions on the Roan massif. Now an open meadow, this site was once home to the ugly, three-story Cloudland Hotel built around 1884. In service for 20 years, it was dismantled in 1914.

Top of Roan Mountain

Top of Roan Mountain

Two other attractions are Roan High Bluff, a high elevation rock outcropping with rare plants, and Roan Gardens, a path through the Spruce-Fir forest that highlights many of the plant species found on Roan including endemics. The fourth attraction is Carvers Gap and the balds, which I’ll experience tomorrow. If the Cloudland Hotel site is all one had to go one, Roan Mountain would not be worth the time or trouble to visit. Fortunately, the other three sites more than make up for it.

Friends Susan and Allen Sweetser may be visiting Roan today, and I look for them around Cloudland. If we can find each other, we can botanize up here. They know a lot about Roan thanks to their plant mentor, Ed Schell. Since I have never set foot on Roan before, they are to be my mentors. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to travel 7.1 miles to the top, so we kept things loose. They weren’t certain they would be here today.   I see no sign of them but wander the area for at least 30 minutes before continuing to the shelter.

Horribly rutted approach trail to Roan High Knob Shelter

Horribly rutted approach trail to Roan High Knob Shelter

Roan High Knob Shelter is a half mile down a very rocky jeep road, in the middle of which sits a stone chimney. I can find no information on its origin. Situated near the mountain’s true summit (6,286 feet), the shelter is off trail a tenth mile, and neither the skinny brown post marking the trail nor the trail itself are easy to spot. In fact, the side trail is a steep rutted mess of roots that looks more like a drainage ditch. Without the blue blazes, I would not have believed the sign.

This shelter, the highest on the A.T., must have been the caretaker’s cabin associated with a fire tower now gone, only concrete footings remain. There is a spacious fire ring in front of the shelter, and the water source is down another rutted path behind it. The cabin has a narrow covered porch, door, and wooden floor but no sleeping platforms. Hikers must stake out a rectangle on the floor. Given the shelter’s elevation (6,194), I’m sure there are times when the door and too cozy sleeping arrangements are welcome.

Roan High Knob Shelter

Roan High Knob Shelter

An open understory Spruce-Fir forest beyond the cabin contains many potential tent sites. Most have some degree of slant to them. I find a reasonably level location to stake my tent and begin a few camp chores. It’s still early in the afternoon, and there isn’t that much to do. I’m looking for ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ to show. They plan to camp here too. A couple stops by briefly and makes the decision to keep going on this warm sunny day. As they prepare to leave, the man asks if I was the one who left a note on the A.T. post near Cloudland. I tell him no, and he says, “Well, some lady named Margie taped a note with ‘Hi’ and some numbers…215 I think.” “Could the note have been FOR Margie?” I ask. “Maybe.” The Sweetsers did make it, and left a note for me about an hour after I passed through. I ask if they saw a dad with a little red-haired girl. “Yeah, we passed them near the top.”

Roan High Knob Shelter interior

Roan High Knob Shelter interior

It’s now 5:00 p.m., and ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ still haven’t arrived at the shelter. Did they decide to leave the A.T. and hitch a ride at Cloudland? Did they miss the shelter side trail? No one else is here, and I’m not sure I want to stay by myself. I’ve either got to pack up and get going (the next shelter is 5.2 miles away) or commit and start dinner. Just as I’ve struck my tent and am about the take down my food bag, they arrive, having lounged at length around the parking area bathrooms and picnic tables.

Spruce Fir at Roan High Knob

Spruce Fir at Roan High Knob

While cooking dinner, others show. It’s the church group from Cherry Gap. One of the young men looks at me and asks, “Are you the lady that left us a note about the fireflies?” I nod yes. “Thank you so much, it was an incredible experience.” Two of the young women come up to thank me as well. “We’d like to give you a trail name…‘Firefly.’” I’m touched. Having a second trail name gives me options. There will be days when ‘G-Sprout’ just doesn’t fit, then I can be ‘Firefly’ and float through the air glowing!

Catawba Rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron

Day Eleven, June 16, Mountain Harbor Hostel, 15.8 miles: For the first and only time this trip, I need the long johns and jacket I packed. Cool temperatures and breezes overnight are followed by misty clouds enveloping Roan in the morning. I remain bundled through breakfast and the first minutes of today’s journey.

Descent from Roan High Knob follows that rocky jeep road nearly a mile through walls of Catawba Rhododendron and young Fraser Fir, then turns left into the forest winding along the well built trail that mirrors and even exceeds the excellent work seen yesterday. These efforts produce a surface to withstand the harsh mountain elements and heavy foot traffic, keeping hikers on trail and out of the delicate forest community wreathing Roan.

Capturing an image of an artist capturing an image

Capturing an image of an artist capturing an image

It’s just 1.5 miles from the shelter’s side trail to Carvers Gap. The A.T. emerges from dark Spruce-Fir forest to cross TN 143 within sight of the gap’s large sign. From here the trail passes through long stretches of open sky in a series of grassy balds extending to Hump Mountain 9.5 miles east.

Spruce-Fir forests are deep and primeval, grassy balds offer spectacular views, but Roan Mountain’s two biggest draws are shrubs, Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) and Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). Masses of these shrubs in flower, the former around High Knob and the latter on the balds, attract a crush of visitors in mid June and are the featured stars of an annual Rhododendron Festival weekend.

Flame Azalea on Round Bald

Flame Azalea on Round Bald

The timing of my trip puts me at Roan a few days before the festival, but I’m already late to the party. The Catawba Rhodos, slave to no calendar, have peaked and many are finished. A few shrubs still hold their baseball-sized clusters of purple flowers, but the main show is over for the year. Flame Azaleas are more cooperative, aggregated in scattered groupings sporting brilliant bundles of yellow to red-orange flowers.

The real botanical interest on Roan would never register on the public’s radar. Sprinkled among the Flame Azaleas are drab Green Alder shrubs (Alnus viridis ssp. crispa), their ovoid female catkins the opposite of showy. Dazzled by orange, I almost fail to notice the alders myself, but when one right under my nose at last pierces my consciousness, the excitement is palpable!

Green Alder

Green Alder

This population is special. Green Alder’s native range is circumpolar. It covers most of Canada and Greenland, dipping into the U.S. through the Great Lakes states and New England, petering out in two Pennsylvania counties with one notable exception. Approximately 450 miles south of the southernmost PA population, Green Alder resides happy as the proverbial pig upon the grassy balds of Roan Mountain. Widely separated species populations are called disjuncts, and they are the subject of biogeography, more specifically in the case of plants, phytogeography. Disjunct northern species like Green Alder and the showier Schweinitz’s Ragwort (Packera schweinitziana) plus species such as Red Spruce and Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) that dip south only through the Appalachians provide compelling evidence of plant migration during periods of glaciation. Moving south ahead of ice sheets, these plants settled further downslope while tundra covered the summits. Later, as the climate warmed again, they found suitable local habitats in the mountains’ higher elevations.

Roachy on Round Bald

Roachy on Round Bald

Beating Green Alder in the ‘easily overlooked’ category are several grasses and sedges — Hair-grass (Deschampsia flexuosa), Flattened Oat-grass (Danthonia compressa), and White Beaksedge (Rhynchospora alba). These are best explored on a day trip to Roan, when time and miles are not breathing down my neck.

Round Bald is the first grassy expanse past Carvers Gap. ‘Roachy’ gives me her best smile from its summit 30 yards off trail. Jane Bald with its rock slabs is 0.7 mile away, and 0.6 mile further is a side trail (0.5 mi) to Grassy Ridge Bald, something to save for one of those day trips.

Tassel Rue

Tassel Rue

Past Roan’s balds, the A.T. reenters the green tunnel and begins a steady descent to Yellow Mountain Gap, passing the Stan Murray Shelter about halfway. Tassel Rue (Trautvettaria caroliniensis) flowers are beginning to open. Numerous thick white stamens prove an eye-catching substitute for petals. What appear to be Cinnamon Ferns crowd one section of the trail. Later, I walk past an Interrupted Fern as tall as me, so they all may be Osmunda claytoniana.

Yellow Mountain Gap (Bright’s Trace) was the route of the ‘Overmountain Men’ who helped rout the British at Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War. A blue-blazed trail to the right leads 0.3 mile to Overmountain Shelter, a converted barn that accommodates 20 people plus tent sites. A popular stop along the trail, it is also known for its scenic views.

Overmountain Shelter

Overmountain Shelter

Climbing Little Hump Mountain, I can look back and easily spot the red barn perched mid-slope at the head of a clearing, the valley of Yellow Mountain Gap spreading below. The trail up Little Hump moves in and out of small openings and forests before reaching the open summit. I pause in the shade to eat a snack and apply sunscreen. The morning’s heavier cloud cover has broken into a swift flotilla of sailing cumulus puffs. The sun is bright and strong, yet breezes prevent the exertion of backpacking from becoming too burdensome.

Little Hump Mountain

Little Hump Mountain

Hump Mountain is visible from Little Hump. The trail makes an abrupt right turn into a thick tunnel of birch and hawthorn trees, but quickly pops out again. From here, the trail bisects a wide grassy boulevard connecting the slopes of Little Hump and Hump through Bradley Gap. Large rock outcrops of gneiss dot the middle slope of Hump. I choose one of these for my lunch spot. Blustery and cool even in mid-afternoon, I don a long-sleeve shirt to avoid becoming both chilled and sunburned.

Gray's Lily

Gray’s Lily

In this patch of outcrops, a lone stem of Gray’s Lily (Lilium grayi) screams red-orange in the sea of green grass. The wind has this darn thing bouncing and jigging around like a little kid overdue for a potty break, but I keep shooting images until I get a reasonably sharp one. Gray’s Lily is a rare plant, endemic to the Southern Appalachians’ high peaks, and found mainly in association with the Roan massif in Tennessee.

NoBos must push past a couple of false summits to crest Hump Mountain. The true top isn’t visible from lower vantage points on trail. Livestock sometimes graze here though I see no animals or evidence, and fences crisscross the mountain with zigzag stiles for us two-footed beasts to maneuver.

View southbound from the upper flank of Hump Mountain

View southbound from the upper flank of Hump Mountain

The trail slips back in the woods less than two miles from my intended destination, Doll Flats campsite, but what a 1.6 miles it is. Shades of Virginia’s rockiest terrain hover around me as I negotiate a tough descent that is all the worse for coming at the end of a long day. It doesn’t look bad on Miller’s profile, but holy cow, it’s rough. Once again, heroic maintenance efforts are obvious and appreciated, yet not quite enough to blunt the late afternoon toll. Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) provides a bit of botanical relief.

Christmas Tree Farm

Christmas Tree Farm

At last the trail smooths and levels. Another Christmas tree farm is visible through a break in the foliage. On the backside of a small meadow opening a sign on trail announces “Leaving NC.” I step into back into Tennessee at Doll Flats, a lovely campsite right on the trail, its water source on the opposite side. I set up my tent and wait for ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm.’

Small Purple Fringed Orchid

Small Purple Fringed Orchid

They arrive within 45 minutes and are energized, wanting to continue another 2.5 miles to US Highway 19E and the hostel 0.3 mile west. I would be quite content to spend the night in peaceful Doll Flats, but after consulting my plans for the next two days, I determine that getting these extra miles done might be a positive move. My only concern is the condition of the trail down to the highway. The profile looks steeper, and if it’s as rocky as what came before Doll Flats, I’ll be in misery. ‘Storm’s enthusiasm persuades me to pull up my tent and keep going.

The trail is mostly smooth and in good shape. Within 90 minutes we are at 19E thumbing for a ride. Many people pass us despite having an adorable kid in tow. A young man finally stops, and we cram into his compact car. Speeding down the road, we drive well past the hostel’s location and have to double back. Turns out we were less than a tenth mile away when he stopped for us; we hiked 16 miles today.

Sunbeams on Round Bald

Sunbeams on Round Bald

Mountain Harbor hosts a bed and breakfast in the main house and hiker hostel in a barn with tent sites out back. I’d originally planned to stop here tomorrow morning, pick up my second resupply, shower, wash clothes, and resume the trail to the next shelter. When I arranged to send my second food pack here, the lady I spoke with was very nice. I’ve heard others talk favorably of their experiences with Mountain Harbor, but ‘Storm,’ ‘Roachy,’ and I aren’t so fortunate tonight. It’s 7:00 p.m., and I’m dead on my feet when we ring the doorbell. The man that answers stares as if we were alien life forms. He merely shakes his head “no” when ‘Storm’ asks if there are rooms available in the house. We ask about the hostel, and he shuffles off in search of an answer. The barn is crowded, but there may be one spot in the loft. I ask if there are fans…we post-menopausal women cannot get enough cool moving air at night. He shrugs. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ give him 15 dollars for a tent site and laundry soap/quarters. I do the same.

Winter Wren serenades my snack break

Winter Wren serenades my snack break

The tenting area is very rough and located below the highway where cars and trucks grind uphill. By the time I shower, set up camp, sort my resupply, and finish laundry, it is well after 10:00 p.m. I’m too exhausted to eat dinner. It’s another Vitamin I chugging, ear-plugging night that never quite blocks the sound of traffic groaning on US 19E.

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Chicory flower

Chicory flower

The Appalachian Trail begins its flirtation with Tennessee at Doe Knob, the Gregory Bald Trail junction 6.8 miles north of Fontana Dam in the Smokies, and tap dances along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, rarely straying far into either state or staying for very long. There are three significant deviations. The first occurs a few miles past Max Patch through Hot Springs to Rich Mountain where it veers from the border as much as 4.5 miles into North Carolina.

Rejoining the state line at Rich Mountain, the trail’s next major deviation comes after Little Bald, looping into North Carolina through Spivey Gap before crossing back into Tennessee for a pit stop in Erwin. Eight miles later, just before Indian Grave Gap, border and trail overlap again until Hump Mountain, where the A.T. makes its final, brief foray into North Carolina then commits to Tennessee at Doll Flats. The northeastern corner of the state carries the trail to Virginia’s border and passes the baton.

The A.T. crosses an active railroad in Erwin, TN.

The A.T. crosses an active railroad in Erwin, TN.

Day Seven, June 12, Curly Maple Gap Shelter, 4.7 miles: With something of a near-o (low mileage day) planned, I indulge and sleep in. At most I’ll do 7.3 miles to a campsite not far from Indian Grave Gap. I’d like to go further than the first shelter to shave a couple of miles from tomorrow’s hike which includes Unaka Mountain. The late morning is cloudy and looks like rain. ‘Trouble,’ a hiker helping out at the hostel for a while, leaves some trail magic at my door — a banana, OJ, a bag of dark chocolates, and pastries. Wow! A pleasant surprise. I eat the first two, take some of the chocolates, leave the rest for another deserving hiker, and thank ‘Trouble’ for his kindness before I go.

Catty-cornered from Uncle Johnny’s, the trail immediately crosses the Nolichucky River, ducks into the woods for a moment, and pops out on an active railroad, complete with cautions to look carefully before climbing over the tracks. Trains sometimes stop briefly in Erwin. A sign warns hikers to resist the temptation to crawl underneath and wait for the train to move instead. No trains in sight as I cross.

Bridge over Jones Branch

Bridge over Jones Branch

Following the Nolichucky upstream for a mile, the trail turns up Jones Branch, crossing multiple times on bridges at least one of which was built by Daniel Sprinkle, Eagle Scout Troop 4 of Piney Flats, TN. The forest is dense, and thick stands of Rosebay Rhododendron clog the stream’s course. A few short sections are very steep and virtually carved from bedrock. I’m in no particular hurry and, given my replenished load, set an easy pace and rest often.

This is the weekend before Father’s Day, and during the coming week, I’ll meet several fathers with their children on trail. First up are two young men in their 20s and their 50-something dads out for a few days. We play tag over the next couple of miles to the shelter.

Curley Maple Gap Shelter is spacious, with double sleeping platforms and an extended roof covering most of the picnic table. When I arrive, ‘Giggles’ is there sweeping out the place. She’s bagged trash left by previous occupants with the intent to carry it out. I decide to rest a while and eat lunch. The sons and dads rest too and consult my Miller trail guide for their evening destination.

Trail in and out of Erwin is fairly rocky.

Trail in and out of Erwin is fairly rocky.

Not too long after the guys leave NoBo, a father and daughter (in her 20s) arrive SoBo. They rest as well and eat a snack before heading to Erwin with ‘Giggles’ load of trash. While they are here, the clouds finally shed some of their moist burden. Movement from the fire ring calls attention to a five-foot Black (Gray) Rat Snake making a beeline for the shelter.

The area below the lower sleeping platform has been blocked with hardware cloth, but on one side rocky ground prevents a clean tackable edge. This snake knows its neighborhood. Sliding up to the wire, it looks left at first, then quickly moves right, heading straight for the sliver of space allowing entry. Within minutes two mice bolt from the shelter! I cordially invite the snake to stay as long as it likes, but soon after the shower ends, it comes back out and heads toward the trail. Later, a Fowler’s Toad hops up and scoots under the wire. Must be a well-known hangout for area wildlife.

In a bit, father number three arrives with his daughter, an eleven-year-old sporting gorgeous dark red hair, a winning smile, and the not-so-flattering trail name ‘Roachy,’ a corruption of her real name, Rachel. They have just begun their journey and hope to make it all the way to Damascus. They too continue to a campsite further up the trail.

Curley Maple Gap Shelter

Curley Maple Gap Shelter

I’ve become fairly comfortable here and enjoy ‘Giggles’ company. A Texas native, she started at Springer but is only going to Hampton, TN. She exits there for her summer job as a camp counselor in North Carolina. I take a peek at her Miller guide, the new 2015 version, which no longer shows the campsite I’d planned to occupy, so I decide to settle in. The extra rest should more than prepare me for tomorrow’s miles.

Two other Maine-bound hikers join us for the evening, ‘Jukebox’ (always whistling) making his second attempt at a thru-hike before beginning his third year at Princeton and ‘Shamrock’ (green backpack) whose family name graces an A.T. shelter in VT. ‘Jukebox’ is whistling an unusual tune for wilderness hikers. “That’s ‘Jupiter’ from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.” He looks up with a surprised and appreciative smile. Being a 50-something classical music aficionado among 20-year-old hip-hop fans can have its rewards!

In the shelter is a book of verse by Bill Alexander, “The Appalachian Hippie Poet.” On the whole, it’s drivel — painfully predictable rhymes about drinking, loneliness, ‘my-woman’s-gone’ stuff. I read a few aloud in a southern/country twang that has ‘Giggles’ living up to her trail name.

Black (Gray) Rat Snake looking to get out of the rain.

Black (Gray) Rat Snake looking to get out of the rain.

For some inexplicable reason, shelters north of Erwin do not have food cables. Even with these high-mounted, steel systems of pulleys and hooks, bears are difficult to deter. Two nights ago, a bag was damaged at No Business Shelter (my toad’s home).

Bears have become the talk of the trail. Word has spread of the attack in the Smokies, and sightings are a regular occurrence. Without the convenience of cables, everyone is on her own to confound determined bears each night. No avoiding the low-tech, rock-and-rope approach now.

The main problem with hanging a bag is locating an appropriate limb. Is it high enough? The bottom of the bag needs to be a minimum of 12 feet above the ground. Is the limb far enough away from the main trunk and other trees? Bears are smart and will climb neighboring trees if they offer a way to snag the bag. Is the limb strong enough to hold the bag’s weight but not big enough to hold a bear? Everything has to be just right. It is possible to spend an hour or more trying to find something that will pass muster and rig the rope. Complicating things further, trees’ tendency toward self-pruning of lower limbs in a shady forest results in a dearth of decent choices that aren’t 30 feet high or pointing straight up. Understory trees are usually too short or too weak to support the weight. It can be very frustrating.

Gray Ratsnake 02, AT TN NC, June 12, 2015At Curley Maple, all the choices are 20 feet high or more. ‘Giggles’ claims the lowest branch, but it doesn’t look strong enough for two bags. The only choice left towers overhead. As noted earlier, my little rope system is a decent option under reasonable conditions, though I fear the rope may be too short for this height — just one of many food bag problems.

After several attempts to hurl a rock over a limb, one’s shoulder begins to feel a bit like that of a major leaguer late in the sixth inning. It’s also important to watch out for the rock coming down. Duck and cover is good advice. Finally, my biggest nemesis — rope tangles — has the potential to make this necessary chore a nightmare!

Gray Ratsnake 03, AT TN NC, June 12, 2015Weight and height are the issues tonight. To attach my food bag to the carabiner, the rock sack dangles well above my reach. With fingertips, I push the food bag as far overhead as I can but still am unable to grab the rock sack and hoist my food. ‘Giggles’ is quite a bit taller than me and comes to the rescue. The freshly stocked food bag is as heavy as it can be, a worthy opponent in this tug of war. One vigorous pull leaves me staggering backwards with the detached rock sack in my hand, the food bag on the ground, and the rope’s end with its toggle clip wrapped four times around the limb 20 feet above my head.

I’m dumbfounded.

Repeated tugs — soft ones, hard ones, bouncy ones — accomplish nothing. I put my whole weight into it and nothing. ‘Jukebox’ comes over. He points to a skinny broken snag behind me. “Run the rope around this, maybe it will give you enough leverage to break the limb.” I do and pull as hard as I can, the slender rope cutting into my hands. Nothing happens, and I let go in disgust knowing I’ll have to cut off a significant portion of my rope. I turn around in time to see the toggle clip and rope drop gently to the ground.

I’m dumbfounded.

Fishing Spider

Fishing Spider

Apparently, the angle of the pull set in motion reverse winding of the rope’s toggle clip when the tension was suddenly released. Neither ‘Jukebox’ nor I can believe my good fortune! I rethread the rope through the sack and tie a much bigger knot behind the toggle clip. Back in business, I finally get my food hung and retire to the shelter exhausted.

There is one more wildlife story at Curley Maple. While cleaning the shelter, ‘Giggles’ spotted this huge arachnid hunkered by a wall stud, a massive fishing spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus, I believe. It did not move all day, but in the gathering dusk, it ventures forth. ‘Shamrock’ is enamored. He and I take several photos. By morning, this fierce looking beauty has disappeared.

The back half of a Timber Rattlesnake with 12 rattles.

The back half of a Timber Rattlesnake with 12 rattles.

Day Eight, June 13, Cherry Gap Shelter, 12.8 miles: ‘Jukebox’ and I are the first ones up and out. ‘Giggles’ sleeps late and hikes fast. She gets her kicks later in the day blowing past all who left well before her.

The trail cruises north of the state line remaining nearly level, then climbs to the crest about a mile from Indian Grave Gap (3,550 ft) and levels again. The ridge is dry and dense with Mountain Laurel and Teaberry lining either side. Energized on this beautiful morning, I’m hiking strong on the ridge, hoping to give ‘Giggles’ a run for her money until a sound I’ve never heard in person pierces my consciousness and activates a response as instinctive as it is immediate.

Mountain Laurel flowering in a powerline clearing

Mountain Laurel flowering in a powerline clearing

From a brisk walk to stock still, I am frozen by rapid rattling and direct my attention downward. A Timber Rattlesnake lies stretched across the trail less than five feet in front of me. Irritated by my aggressive approach, it sends a stern warning, “Slow down, Sister!” It isn’t a very long snake, maybe four feet, but its circumference appears close to three inches, and I count 12 rattles.

Not at all pleased to move on my account, it gradually works its way into the thick cover of teaberry and laurel. After that tail disappears, I listen for further movement in the underbrush before continuing and a moment later assume the coast is clear. One step and the snake directs another harsh rattle at me. “Aw, come on…I don’t want to upset you, I just want to get by.” I wait another few moments then hug the opposite edge of the trail in a slow side step without triggering any more angry retorts.

View toward Erwin from Beauty Spot

View toward Erwin from Beauty Spot

Evidence of civilization isn’t restricted to roads and towns. The A.T. often crosses beneath transmission power lines through wide, sunny openings barren of most woody plants. Many are full of various herbaceous species, including grasses and maybe some brambles, but an opening today is tinted pink down the hillside from a profusion of Mountain Laurel blossoms.

Rising in stages toward Unaka Mountain, the trail bisects a grassy hilltop called Beauty Spot at 4300 ft. Visitor’s can drive to the top and spend a day enjoying the views, picnicking, or walking a bit of the A.T. Erwin is visible to the west, with another good view of mountainous terrain to the south.

Gasoline powered trail work

Gasoline powered trail work

I read somewhere that trail work on the A.T. is done by hand, no machines to ease the labor. Past Beauty Spot, I can hear the whine of a small gas engine and assume it comes from nearby private land. In a few minutes though, I see two people running weed eaters up either side of the trail, their truck parked on a forest service road. They pause to let me pass and resume their work. I’ve always thought the purity of spirit behind the injunction against mechanical aid was admirable but archaic given the sheer volume and intensive nature of trail clearing and maintenance required annually.

Shady maple, great lunch location

Shady maple, great lunch location

Other meadow openings dot the trail on either side of Beauty Spot. One features a lone maple tree shading a log and small campsite. I take a long break to eat lunch. Spruce-topped Unaka Mountain, the last big stretch of the day, is visible. I’ve been on the lookout for ‘Giggles,’ rather surprised she hasn’t passed me yet.

Deep Gap is on the southern end of Unaka Mountain with Low Gap on the northern end. This reminds me of a conversation ‘Giggles’ and ‘Jukebox’ had last night. She was complaining about all the gaps called either “Low” or “Deep.” “Why don’t they give them a different name? They could name one after me!”  ‘Jukebox’ suggests that a knob might be a better choice but finally argues against attaching a personal name to both saying, “Hikers would hate you either way. Gaps kill the knees, and knobs kill the quads.”

American Chestnut

American Chestnut

The trail up Unaka is steeper and a bit rocky but not too hard, covering 1.5 miles and rising over 1,000 feet to an elevation of 5,180. There are American Chestnut sprouts along the way and Flame Azaleas in flower near the top. I meet ‘Roachy’ and her dad ‘Storm.’ The three of us cross Unaka together.

Unaka’s summit is very broad making it essentially flat. The highest ground is solid Red Spruce (Picea rubens). Few other plant species are present. The spruce canopy is high overhead, and from eye level it’s like walking through a shady plot of telephone poles. There is no understory. Apart from a fern sprig here or there and occasional patches of bright green moss, this forest is a brown monochrome — dark tree boles contrasting a carpet of pale dead needles. The trail surface is indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor, and though the path runs straight, it’s wise to keep an eye peeled for white blazes. Disorientation at dusk or in fog could present quite a challenge to find the trail again.

Unaka Mountain

Unaka Mountain

The back side of Unaka is a gentle descent among lush waves of sedges and ferns. My feet are beginning to ache as the day winds down and I pull into Deep Gap. Cherry Gap Shelter is 1.1 miles away, involving two short climbs, one short descent, and 35 minutes.

The shelter, a lousy dump, is located on a ridge, with decent tents sites spread widely along the trail just past it. I find a perfect spot, locate a great food limb, set up my tent and get water from a very good spring a short walk behind the shelter. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ stop here too. It is a lovely, calm evening. I settle down to dinner.

‘Giggles’ shows up and stops by my site. She took long breaks at Beauty Spot and Unaka’s summit, both captured her imagination. As she talks, a loud racket behind us prompts me to turn around. “Oh, that’s just the church group,” says ‘Giggles.’

Hallway of Red Spruce on Unaka Mountain's summit

Hallway of Red Spruce on Unaka Mountain’s summit

At least 15 teenagers, late high school or college age, and two adults (a man and woman) swarm the campsites. Their din of nonstop chatter and laughter annihilates any hope of peace. In something of a cat herding exercise, the adults direct the students in camp preparations their first night in the mountains.

They drove in from Nashville (my city) this morning. As with the boy scouts last week, they have arrived at camp so late in the day, they are still engaged in important chores (in this instance cooking food) as night falls. Amid the roar of their gas stoves, they are shouting at each other while I’m trying to go to sleep. One girl’s voice in particular pierces the night air, rising well above the others.

Drifts of sedges descending Unaka Mountain

Drifts of sedges descending Unaka Mountain

At 9:00 p.m. (Hiker Midnight), I walk over to politely ask if they could please keep it down. The woman says, “This is their first night.”  “I understand, but I’ve had a long day and would really like to get to sleep.” She tries again, “They’re just excited.”  “I understand, but I really don’t think yelling is necessary.” With a slight look of frustration, she turns to the kids, “We’ve had a request to keep the noise down.”

To my delight, they comply. Back in the tent, I pop two Ibuprofen to ease my aching feet. Ear plugs firmly in place and “Vitamin I” coursing through my system, I fall into a blissful sleep, unaware of the drama unfolding around me.

Roachy and her dad, Storm

Roachy and her dad, Storm

Day Nine, June 14, Clyde Smith Shelter, 9.2 miles: Proper hydration on trail usually leads to a middle of the night bathroom run. This night there are people in the church group’s camp milling around with headlamps. I still have my ear plugs in place and have no idea what they are doing, nor do I care. More sleep is my focus.

Each morning, I dress and assemble all gear in my tent before emerging, ready to eat breakfast and pack. Each evening I filter all water needed for the next day and usually have at least a liter left in the “dirty” bag for breakfast and to top off water bottles before leaving. I leave this unfiltered water bag hanging from a limb at my campsite overnight, threading the tube and filter cartridge through the bag handle to keep them from dangling. No wildlife have ever bothered it in three years of hiking.

Hayscented Fern Glen

Hayscented Fern Glen

At this site, the bag hangs from a small bump on a young tree where a little limb used to be. It is just enough to hold the bag without slipping. This morning I notice the bag is tilted to one side. I also notice it is empty. There is a clean puncture at the base of the tube port about the size of a BB. Stunned, I try to figure how on earth something could puncture the bag from below without knocking it off the tree. The tube and cartridge are not damaged or even disturbed. Just one perfect, devastating hole.

My first suspicion is not charitable. Could one of the church kids have done this as retaliation for my noise complaint?  They were up in the middle of the night. I can prove nothing and have to find some way to make this bag operable for at least four more days. I pull out my repair kit and make a temporary fix with Tenacious Tape then head for the spring. It still leaks, but holds enough for breakfast.

Rock pillars on NC's Iron Mountain

Rock pillars on NC’s Iron Mountain

When I’m packed, I walk back to the church camp to thank them for being quiet last night and apologize if it put a damper on their fun. Just in case they did punch a hole in my bag, I want them to feel really bad about it. The man’s Platypus bladder is hanging from a tree and I warn him, “Be careful, something punched a perfect hole in mine last night. It’s ruined.” He gives me a funny look. I ask where they plan to camp tonight. Greasy Creek Gap. Good. I’ll be going two miles past.

It’s a shorter mileage day with no big mountains but several smaller ups and downs hovering near 4,000 feet. The trail is easy, skirting the summit of Little Bald Knob and crossing TN 107/NC 226 at Iron Mountain Gap. From the gap, it follows the ridge line onto Iron Mountain. This is North Carolina’s Iron Mountain, a short ridge southeast of the long, straight, and impressive ridge line of Tennessee’s Iron Mountain still ahead beyond the town of Hampton.

Round-leaved Orchid

Round-leaved Orchid

I meet ‘Zippy,’ a SoBo section hiker striking camp. He’s very pleasant and true to SoBo nature, quite chatty. It’s another beautiful day, a mix of sun and clouds with refreshing breezes along the ridge, and the trail passes through several sedge-filled woodlands and lush fern glades, New York and Hayscented ferns mainly. On top of NC’s Iron Mountain are slanted rock formations that make a great rest stop. I break for lunch here.

Walking along, I begin to regret my suggested suspicion to the church group for my water bag woes and wonder what I could do to make amends. Nothing says, “I’m sorry,” like a magical night of Blue Ghost Fireflies, so I determine to leave them a note at their intended destination. Fortunately for me there is a sign attached to a tree that announces “Greasy Creek Gap” removing any doubt, and I sit down to write about the fireflies and provide important instructions for good viewing — full nightfall, no lights — and express hope that this will make up for putting a damper on their first night in the mountains. I sign it, “Your cranky Nashville neighbor at Cherry Gap,” and leave it on a stump at the fire ring anchored by a small rock. Greasy Creek Gap is also the location of a 0.6 mile spur trail to a hostel that receives good word-of-mouth reviews from hikers.

Round-leaved Orchid flowers

Round-leaved Orchid flowers

Two couples with four dogs are resting at the Greasy Creek campsite when I arrive and leave the same time I do. The women and dogs move ahead, but the two men talk about the rich spring wildflowers along the trail past the camp. They point out an orchid, Platanthera orbiculata, Large Round-leaved or Padleaf Rein Orchid, a northern species that dips south to NC and TN through the Southern Appalachians but is considered rare within most of its range, preferring damp, rich forests. Two broadly oval leaves lie flat on the ground beneath a 10-20 inch stalk holding numerous greenish white flowers aloft in a raceme. I’ve seen one or two other individuals along the trail, but this is the first in flower. [I wish I’d given it the sniff test; botanical descriptions say it is fragrant.]

The shelter is a 0.1 mile off the trail, and the water source is another 0.1 mile from the shelter. Larger than most, Clyde Smith is still dark and dingy. Tent sites behind it are preferable. I plunge into evening chores, including the all-important food bag limb, and spread out sweaty clothes, socks and shoes to air in shafts of sunlight. Next up is the water bag. Tenacious Tape isn’t working, so I remove it and try again with duct tape. A close inspection reveals two small scrapes on the side of the port and another dent on top. Something really did try to bite it.

Sedge woodland with gnarled maples

Sedge woodland with gnarled maples

I will discover later that bears terrorized the church group last night, grabbing one girl’s backpack and dragging it into the woods. Considering these troubles, I can only assume my culprit was a bear. Now it might have been a squirrel with very big teeth, but a bear, probably a cub, is most likely and makes a much better story. It is still amazing, because  that cub had to take the gentlest bite possible to avoid knocking the whole thing to the ground! I am very thankful it wasn’t ripped to pieces.

My awesome repair!

My awesome repair!

The tube port projects from the base of the bag with rounded contours. I clean and dry the area, cut precise sections of duct tape, and carefully apply each piece to make solid contact and minimize potential leakage. It looks good and works great. Not a single drip. ‘Storm’ admires my handiwork, “You could be on Survivor.”

Beginning this evening, ‘Storm,’ ‘Roachy,’ and I become official camp buddies. We set our tents in the same area and enjoy each other’s company. ‘Roachy’ is an adorable doll — cute, funny, smart, and as good a hiker as anyone on trail. I like her so much, I invite her to share my Oreos!

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Starting in Hot Springs

Starting in Hot Springs

Day One, June 6, Spring Mountain Shelter, 11.3 miles: Friends Susan and Allen Sweetser drop me at the A.T. trailhead in Hot Springs off Serpentine Road. At 9:00 a.m. I hoist a full pack and follow the trail on Hot Springs streets for several tenths of a mile, crossing the French Broad River before turning into the “green tunnel,” a term used to describe the A.T. for its lengthy runs through shady forests.

The trail parallels the river a short distance then ascends Lovers Leap Ridge 1200 feet, followed by a 500-foot ascent of Mill Ridge, a 1300-foot ascent of Rich Mountain, and a 600-foot ascent of Spring Mountain. It’s going to be a long and brutal first day! Despite dry, rocky terrain on the first ridges, the trail surface is surprisingly smooth and easy to walk.

Pond

Pond

Ninety minutes into the hike, I take a break at one of the many campsites along the trail. Resting on a log for a snack, I attempt to stand up and hear a ripping sound like Velcro. Pine sap oozing from the log is now on my pants. Anything with which I make contact immediately binds to my rear: leaves, dirt, sticks, small pebbles. I feel like one of those insects that cover themselves with detritus as camouflage.

Goat's Rue

Goat’s Rue

Later, I adhere to a bench next to a dammed pond with small black fish. It marks the halfway point and a good spot for lunch. My pace has improved somewhat, but up to now, I’ve seen no one else on trail. At the pond, a young man scouts early mushrooms and shows me a lovely specimen of Suillus pictus. Back on trail, I meet a local woman exercising her dogs and a day-hiking couple. Thus begins a long and interesting list of personal encounters on the A.T.

Next up are two women, one from Chattanooga ‘Wallagirl,’ the other from Lynchburg, VA, ‘Heartsong.’ They are section hiking southbound (SoBo). ‘Wallagirl’ sees my bear Humphrey riding on my shoulder and shows me a tiny stuffed wallaby called “Wallaboy” given to her by her son.

Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

A young girl, ‘Hummingbird,’ with gorgeous blond hair in a French braid is northbound (NoBo) to Katahdin. She began at Springer Mountain May 18 and is making incredible time. I catch up with her again at the Rich Mountain Lookout Tower, where we both meet ‘Many Nights.’ Now in his mid 80s, ‘Many Nights’ thru-hiked the A.T. SoBo in 1998 at age 67. We share a delightful chat and enjoy views of the Smokies and Mt. Mitchell. By the way, the alleged “0.1 mile” side trail to the tower is at least twice if not three times that length.

After Rich Mountain, I’m dragging and not even Snickers can revive me. The final 2.7 miles are slow going. There’s no one at Spring Mountain Shelter when I arrive, and what a disappointment. It’s dingy and dirty with gaping holes in the sleeping platform. Rampant rodent references in the shelter’s journal sends me scouting a tent location. The only obvious place is a slanting patch of bare dirt to the right of the shelter. Unknown to me, more sites are located just over a small rise further up trail.

Large Yellow Wood Sorrell

Large Yellow Wood Sorrell

Two men who have set up camp there come to the shelter to cook dinner. They are friends from childhood. It’s Glen’s first backpacking trip, and he’s just out for the weekend. ‘Stick’ has more experience and plans to continue hiking, though his struggles with a stove and water collection have me worried for both men. They tell me the higher sites are flatter and better. While debating a possible move uphill, a handsome young man from CT, ‘Bear Bell,’ arrives. He’s section hiking Damascus to Fontana before his brother’s wedding. There is another young couple upslope, one of them plays the recorder (not very well). I only see them when they come to filter water and hang their food bag.

Glen, ‘Stick,’ ‘Bear Bell,’ and I cook dinner and eat. As daylight fades, a troop of boy scouts from Tampa, FL, arrive. An undetermined number of boys head uphill to find tent/hammock sites, and five or six adults flatten foliage all around the shelter. Stowing my gear away from their mayhem, I hang my food bag on the cables and decide to stay put. Big mistake.

Tall Milkweed

Tall Milkweed

Turns out the middle-school-aged boys have more sense than the doofus adults. Reminiscent of a Three Stooges short, these men spend the next two hours shouting and tromping through the woods trying to hang their food bags. One idiot ties a rope to his knife and throws it over the food cables where it tangles with ‘Bear Bell’s food bag. The knife is stuck. It never dawns on the guy to simply lower the bag and retrieve it. They are oblivious to the rest of us trying to sleep. One lone female in the group walks around wringing her hands, “This is terrible…they can’t get the bags hung…this is terrible.” Yeah, terrible that these fools are trying to teach young boys how to survive in the wilderness!

Discovering this major drawback to summer A.T. hiking — big clueless groups, I determine to rise at dawn and put as much distance between them and me as possible.

Day Two, June 7, Campsite, 10.7 miles: Up at 5:40 and leaving before 7:00, my original destination Little Laurel Shelter 8.6 miles away is abandoned when I hear the scouts are headed there. My focus shifts two miles further to a campsite at Jones Meadow. It’s a lovely day, and I make good time passing through Allen Gap and crossing Log Cabin Drive, where a private home is visible mere yards from the trail. I plan to lunch at the shelter.

Goatsbeard

Goatsbeard

In June, two plant species found on trail appear so similar it is difficult to tell them apart. Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus, Rosaceae) and Astilbe (Astilbe biternata, Saxifragaceae, also called False Goatsbeard) are producing tall feathery panicles of fleecy flowers in rich, moist woodlands. There are several distinctions between them, but these differences are subtle and require close examination. In the field, I find it hard to remember which characteristics belong to which species.

The most significant difference requires a hand lens to confirm. Goatsbeard is dioecious — male flowers, each with 15-20 stamens, on one plant and female flowers on another. Two other traits may be used. Astilbe’s upper stems have glandular hairs, Goatsbeard is smooth. Astilbe’s foliage is twice or three-times ternate (divided into three leaflets) and the terminal leaflet is often lobed. Goatsbeard’s compound foliage is not restricted to divisions of three leaflets, the leaflets are double toothed, and the terminal leaflet is not lobed. Yet the challenge remains to recall which is which when both are flowering along the trail.

Astilbe

Astilbe

Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum) can be found in dense stands on the A.T. Tall, coarse, and poisonous, it does not have the charm of other wildflowers. However, butterflies like Great Spangled Fritillary appreciate the nectar and wide landing pads its broad, flat heads of small white flowers provide.

The trail is busy in both directions. NoBos still carry dreams of Katahdin and hike with purpose. SoBos are usually fairly chatty, maybe because at this time of year they are certain to be section hikers less pushed by time constraints to finish the entire trail. They will stop for many minutes to exchange pleasantries, share destination goals, and provide valuable information on trail and shelter conditions north.

One unusual SoBo is actually a NoBo. Along with his regular vehicle, Gerard bought a cheap used car. He leaves one at a road crossing south and drives the other to a road crossing north. From there, he hikes south to the first car, spends the night in a hotel, and drives to another trail crossing the following morning, leapfrogging north after hiking each daily section south. He’s proud of this arrangement — no heavy pack, no shelters or tents, carrying only the immediate food and water he needs. He really tries to sell me on the idea, “You can buy a used car for under $1,000.”  Ummm, no thanks. I wish him well and off he goes.

The next SoBo is an older woman. She began at Damascus and has decided to continue to Springer Mountain, estimating her arrival by mid-July. As we chat, something about her is naggingly familiar. When she references a broken ankle, it hits me. “Were you hiking southbound in Virginia two years ago?” I ask. She looks surprised.  “Tip Toe?” I venture. “It’s G-Sprout.” Her face breaks into a big smile. We met on Day 19 of my hike through Central Virginia in 2013. She’s the one who thought Bloodroot leaves look like Batman.

Cow Parsnip with Great Spangled Fritillary

Cow Parsnip with Great Spangled Fritillary

‘TipToe’ is taking her time, enjoying both the trail and its friendly hiker community. No hardship seems too great for her. On my agenda tomorrow is Firescald Bald, a strenuous stretch of rocky terrain that others have warned me against, advocating the bypass trail instead. Not ‘Tip Toe.’ She has her sights on New Hampshire one day, and Firescald was a test for her ankle. She made it easily and encourages me to tackle it, downplaying the A.T.C. caution regarding an eight-foot vertical scramble. “I could reach the top of it,” she says, “and there are good footholds.” ‘Tip Toe’ is 70 and my hero.

I lunch at Little Laurel and rest before climbing Camp Creek Bald, the crest of a 2500-foot climb from Allen Gap. The final 1100 feet in 1.3 miles are steep and require a slow and methodical approach. Near the top, thunder prompts me to cover my pack and sit down on trail, uncertain about crossing the peak in bad weather. The storm never comes my way, and I find that the trail remains under tree cover across the top. A short side trail leads to a lookout tower, but I’m ready to reach camp, and it’s still nearly a mile away.

‘Tip Toe’ advised me against Jones Meadow — too far off trail, no good sites, and barking dogs. However, 100 yards south of the side trail to Jones is a piped spring with a campsite next to the A.T. She stayed there last night. “It’s great,” she says. Arriving at 3:30, I concur with ‘Tip Toe.’ It’s a wonderful site at 4500 feet elevation with a local Veery patrolling the neighborhood.

Campsite

Campsite

My feet have been burning most of the day, and camp shoes are the first order of business. I’m shocked to find itchy red welts covering the tops of my feet and ankles. At Spring Mountain last night, these small black flies bit my feet leaving bright red spots of dried blood. Those bites are now swollen, causing significant discomfort. The pesky flies (I think related to the ones that drove me crazy in Virginia) are at this campsite too. To foil further bites, I wear my liner socks and start swatting them.

A few people walk by, mostly SoBos, but no one else stays for the night. There are no cables to hang food at A.T. campsites, and thinking back to my routine in Virginia, I elect to keep my food bag in my tent. In retrospect, a poor decision, and though I will not pay a price for it tonight, this will be the last time I risk it. Within a few hundred yards of the campsite heading north in the morning, several large bear tracks in the mud convince me it’s time to stop tempting fate and hang my food.

Preparing for sleep, I find those damn flies have flown up my pants legs and bitten my shins above the socks! Lying in the tent with nothing to distract me, my feet begin to itch like crazy. Scratching only makes them worse. Finally I remember Benadryl tablets in my first aid kit, unzip the tent to access my backpack, and discover hundreds of Blue Ghost Fireflies pursuing romance all around me. With an antihistamine dissolving in my tummy to calm the fire in my feet, I sit zipped in the tent with just my face exposed and watch tiny blue lanterns float through the darkness.

Firescald Bald Bypass

Firescald Bald Bypass

Day Three, June 8, Flint Mountain Shelter, 10.6 miles: From the campsite through Firescald Bald, the trail profile reads as nearly level. Thanks to the travails of Garden Mountain in Virginia, I’ve learned not to equate flat with easy. This caution more than applies to Firescald Bald.

Several side trails to the right and left can be confusing as you approach the actual bypass trail. Two go to cliffs, and one, the Jerry Miller Trail, is apparently an even more difficult passage than Firescald itself. The bypass trail, an old A.T. route, is recommended in bad weather. The weather this morning is good, and I plunge ahead ready for the challenge. The trail’s condition to this point has been excellent, and foreknowledge of rough terrain allows mental preparation for these rocky aberrations.

Howard's Rock

Howard’s Rock

Following a forested ridge, the trail traces its way over boulders, often arranged in manageable steps seeming to climb a bit more than the nearly level profile would suggest. The forest ends, and the trail arches over a broad heath bald. The path remains rough and bouldery with walls of Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron, and brambles clipping the lower half of views. Occasional Mountain Ash and Serviceberry trees overtop the heath shrubs. The best view comes at Howard’s Rock, a recently named boulder honoring trail builder Howard McDonald, overlooking Dry Creek with Greeneville and Tusculum, TN, in the distance.

The northern end of Firescald is a very rocky descent of 350 feet including that eight-foot vertical “scramble.” ‘Tip Toe’ was right, it’s probably not much over six feet, and the footholds are so well-positioned I am able to descend without having to turn around. If only the A.T.C. was as conscientious about alerting hikers to that perilous 20-foot drop at Dragon’s Tooth in Virginia. I sure needed a heads-up there! [Hint for anyone hiking NoBo over Cove Mountain at Dragon’s Tooth: Tie rope to your pack’s hand loop and lower it first, making it easier, safer and far less scary to descend. Wish I’d thought of that.]

Rocky descent of Firescald Bald

Rocky descent of Firescald Bald

On the way down, I run into Gerard again. He’s sweating profusely during his climb of Firescald, terrain that has taken him by surprise. He planned an extra long day of hiking based on the trail profile alone and did not consider trail conditions. This strenuous section is taking far more time, energy, and water than he’d bargained. I tell him a good piped spring is about two miles and many boulders away. He questions if he’ll be able to reach his car by dark. Given his unique hiking plan, I figured I’d see him several times throughout my trip. I won’t see Gerard again. Don’t know if Firescald did him in or not, but I do hope he’s OK.

Shortly after leaving Gerard, I run into my own difficulties. A slight slip on a rock sends me tumbling into Mountain Laurel downslope. I’m not really off the trail, just wedged pack down in a shrub with all four limbs flailing like an overturned turtle trying to find some leverage to right myself. Amid bursts of laughter and a profanity or two, I manage to shift enough of the weight to resume an upright position.

Mountain Ash

Mountain Ash

Past Jerry Cabin Shelter, the trail ascends Bald Ridge and eventually Big Butt Mountain.  While this just begs for a bad joke, I’ll simply say Big Butt is a rocky beast. I’m carrying David ‘AWOL’ Miller’s A.T. guide from 2013. I noticed a few errors and inconsistencies when it was new. Two years later, I know to take this old info with a grain of salt. On top of Big Butt, the A.T.’s path is very confusing. I can’t tell if I should turn left and climb tilting slabs of rock (which should lead to the summit, noted as “west of the trail” by Miller) or continue straight ahead (noted as a separate Squibb Creek Trail by Miller). The rock slabs are at angles greater than 45 degrees, and the trail ahead seems to have been recently renovated. Shunning the rocks, I go straight and soon find a reassuring white blaze.

This section of the trail is in superb condition — reasonable width, level surface, excellent grade. Again Miller’s profile shows a steep 1,000-foot descent in 1.3 miles, but the grade and time required to hike this part are not consistent with that data. I’m betting the recent work also rerouted the trail adding a bit more mileage but greatly improving the grade and surface condition. Only the tail end of the descent to Flint Gap through walls of rhododendron is steep and hard on knees.

Big Butt Mountain

Big Butt Mountain

For all the excellent trail work, one tiny area of fresh dirt is wet from recent precipitation and appears steeper with a tendency to tilt downslope. Gotta be carefu…”yaaaaaaah!” I land hard on my left side, right leg bent behind me, sliding down the trail at least four feet. If my baseball-loving husband could have seen this, he’d fling both arms out to the side and yell, “Safe!” I’m bruised and muddy but still functional, a slight twinge in my right ankle.

My fourth fall in three days, two simple mud slips to my butt, the Mountain Laurel tangle, and this big slide, has me doubting the wisdom of wearing boots with over 800 miles on them. These Lowas have carried me three years, and I plan to retire them at the end of this trek. Now I realize the sole tread might be well past its “sell by” date, enough to put me in jeopardy.

Distant thunder, scattered showers, and cloudy skies mark the afternoon, but things are looking a bit better when I arrive at Flint Mountain Shelter. I set up my tent in a fantastic spot that has only one drawback. It’s in a slight depression and water could collect there if it rains. I place my bet on a dry night. A note in the shelter says there is a toe-biting mouse in residence.

Excellent trail work!

Excellent trail work!

I meet an older gentleman, ‘Boomerang,’ who got it in his head to go backpacking and put himself in the capable hands of REI staffers to outfit him appropriately. What he didn’t do was learn how to use his gear. Hikers have been giving him advice and aid. This evening, I help him with his Big Agnes tent and demonstrate the proper way to put a rain cover on his pack. Three other hikers stay at Flint Mountain. Methodist minister ‘Krispy Kreme,’ undeterred by the nibbling mouse, opts for the shelter, and a couple from Cleveland, TN, John and Susan, string their hammocks nearby.

During dinner we glimpse animals that look as big as groundhogs sneaking through the rhododendron. They’re rabbits, Appalachian Cottontails (Sylvilagus obscurus).  Also during dinner, the wind picks up and the sky turns dark, bringing a light shower. I consider a last minute switch to the shelter but stick with my tent. Turning in for the night, another shower begins, then intensifies. It rains most of the night. Periodically, I place my hands to either side of my sleeping pad and push on the tent floor, displacing at least an inch of water underneath. I’m virtually floating in a pool. Thank heavens for bathtub floors. My Tarptent holds up beautifully and keeps me dry.

Day Four, June 9, Hogback Ridge Shelter, 8.8 miles: ‘Boomerang’ is eager for an early start to resupply at a nearby store on NC 212. In his rush, he leaves his tent rainfly on the shelter picnic table. He and I have the same destination today, so I put the fly in a discarded stuff sack and take it with me.

Cascade in Rocky Fork

Cascade in Rocky Fork

The morning is foggy and cool, perfect hiking weather. As usual, the first miles pass easily and swiftly. Sunshine burns through the fog, yet wonderful breezes keep the day cool. So cool I become chilled during my lunch break.

Coming off Locust Ridge, the A.T. crosses Devil Fork Road (NC 212) and Rector Laurel Road to rise through a 10,000 acre tract called Rocky Fork or “the little Smokies,” preserved for its biological diversity and beauty, featuring a cascade and rich understory of herbaceous plants. The 1600-foot climb to Lick Rock is interrupted by Sugarloaf Gap. Somewhere north of the gap and south of the peak, I stop for lunch having passed a SoBo. Twenty minutes later, near the end of my meal, a second SoBo shows inquiring about the first, his hiking partner. He tells me there’s a great meadow clearing about a half mile away where they had spent an hour drying gear in the sun.

Gnome

Gnome

Say no more. The thought of warm sun and a chance to dry both my tent and ‘Boomerang’s rainfly is ample motivation. This meadow-like opening occurs in a sag between two high points, the second being Lick Rock. There is a good campsite here, and another hiker, ‘Gnome,’ is preparing to continue his journey SoBo. We chat a bit as I lay out wet items. He doesn’t have far to go, finishing at NC 212, and is reluctant to leave the trail. On a day like today, I can certainly understand why.

No matter how wet or cold or rough the conditions on trail, there will always be a gorgeous day to warm up or dry out and a beautiful place to rest and recuperate. This opening offers both, plus a view of distant ridges. A snippet of I-26 is visible with its massive rock cliffs carved into the mountains.

While I’m relaxing at the campsite, ‘Boomerang’ arrives grinning from ear to ear. He’s heard through the hiker grapevine (‘Gnome’) that I have his rainfly. Stretching his tent and footprint in the sun, he pops open a fresh can of Vienna sausages, but not before giving me a big bear hug as thanks. Unsure if the afternoon’s clouds portend more rain, we soon pack up and head for the shelter about three miles away.

Sag view

Sag view

After summiting Lick Rock, the trail descends 750 feet to Rice Gap and climbs Hogback Ridge to its shelter. Sitting off trail about 0.1 mile, the shelter faces southwest with good campsites behind it and several more a short distance away. There isn’t a view as such, but the environs are open and airy, and the shelter is decent. The water source, a good spring, is 0.2 mile from the shelter yet a relatively easy and pleasant walk. Unfortunately the privy is disgusting, but most of them thus far have been close to or well past the need for switching pits.

Four young NoBos join us at Hogback, all bound for Maine. One recently finished a stint in the Navy working aboard nuclear submarines. They talk until dark and turn in. It’s a lovely night. I sleep well.

A "Nature Trail" off the A.T.??

A “Nature Trail” off the A.T.??


Day Five, June 10, Whistling Gap camp, 13.6 miles: Bidding ‘Boomerang’ adieu this morning, I start early for a campsite that will put me within striking distance of Erwin, TN, and my first resupply the following day. Upon reaching Sam’s Gap at I-26, I power up my phone and pray for an AT&T signal to call Uncle Johnny’s hostel and reserve a room. Business done, I take the opportunity in Sam’s Gap to call my son Sam. He lives in Arizona where it is 5:30 a.m. I leave him a message.

The trail climbs a small rise to an irregular patchwork of meadows and woods then descends to Street Gap. From there, it is mostly uphill (and thankfully mostly gradual) to Big Bald, a wide, grassy summit with 360-degree views. The northbound approach is not a piece of cake, however. The trail is narrow and twisty, squeezing by trees and rocks in a forest of thick vegetation. My pack often bumps against tree trunks as I snake my way along. Trail rocks and roots add to the fun.

Big Bald

Big Bald

As the forest relaxes a bit, I come across a side path leading to a ridge and a sign that stops me cold, “Nature Trail” with an arrow pointing upslope. The irony is just too much. It isn’t noted on Miller’s profile, but the A.T. map and Google Earth show a large-scaled housing development with equally massive homes just over the ridge. Might it be part of that? Who in their right mind would leave the Appalachian Trail to hike a faux “nature trail” on developed property?

There is a bypass trail for Big Bald, advisable in stormy weather or dense fog. It’s possible to lose the trail on these open summits in low visibility, particularly when additional side trails crisscross the summit. If you need the bypass, look carefully for a thin brown post with tiny lettering “AT ALT” and a blue circle a few yards off the trail on the right. It isn’t easy to spot.

Yellow fields of Big Bald

Yellow fields of Big Bald

On a good day, though, the bald’s lush sward inspires a Julie Andrews moment, twirling to “The Sound of Music” across the rich green grasses with blue mountains lining the horizon. One of the ragworts (Packera sp.) and a non-native hawkweed called King Devil (Hieracium caespitosum) paint some of the meads yellow.

Grassy balds look deceptively smooth, but the footing here can be as tricky as any root-filled forest. Eroded ruts, clumpy grasses, and occasional rocks often make the ground very uneven and require vigilance. In wet weather, hikers will avoid the muddy puddles in ruts and strike a parallel path through the grass inflicting greater damage to the community. The challenge for trail crews is shunting water flow to minimize erosion and the need for hikers to step off-trail. There is fresh evidence of this type of volunteer work on Big Bald.

Big Bald Hi, AT TN NC, June 10, 2015The A.T. in general and landscapes such as Big Bald in particular often bring out the playful side in hikers. It’s such a pleasure to come upon evidence of someone else’s joy.  Examples of hiker humor may be bizarre, sweet, funny, or profane. Those that manifest a light spirit are my favorites. Within a rectangular plot of bare dirt on top of Big Bald offering breathtaking views, someone arranged rocks to convey the simple message, “Hi.” Reentering woods past the bald, a white-blazed post has been modified into a smiling, mustachioed face complete with a pushpin nose. Gotta love it.

The lighter side of hiking

The lighter side of hiking

The descent from Big Bald is easy and smooth, passing Bald Mountain Shelter and a campsite 0.3 mile beyond. I pause here to get off my feet and eat, going so far as to spread my ground cloth and lie down. I have 3.2 miles left including the short but steep rocky summit of now-forested Little Bald and a long descent to Whistling Gap. I’m amazed at how revitalizing the prone position can be! Longer rests totally off my feet and a more relaxed attitude toward the day’s final miles are proving a successful combination for me.

Whistling Gap’s camp is excellent with many level tent sites. The spring, a short distance away, has a low flow this evening. It trickles across the ground to a tree limb, pools about a half inch deep, and overtops the limb in a flat sheet with no clear fall for collection. I find a large sturdy leaf, push one end into the shallow pool and balance the other over the log, creating a little waterfall under which I can place my cup. It takes a while to collect enough water, but I’m pleased. There is something very satisfying in self-sufficient problem solving!

King Devil

King Devil

To my knowledge, no hikers pass by and no one stops for the night. When I’m ready for bed, the last chore is to hang the food bag. I have a long, thin rope with one end threaded through a small drawstring sack made by Anti-Gravity Gear. I tied a carabiner at the rope’s midpoint with a trucker’s hitch. Placing a small rock in the sack, I toss it over a limb of suitable height, hook my food bag to the carabiner, hoist it in the air, and tie the ends around a nearby tree. Take that, Florida boy scout dads!!

When it’s fully dark, I peer out of the tent and see Blue Ghost Fireflies drifting through the campsite. Flashes of lightning and thunder to the west bring my second meditation among the fireflies to a close, and I zip the fly shut. That’s when I notice little globes of light swimming past my tent. Lying in the midst of their world feels like a warm embrace. The storm moves north; the forest sleeps.

The Green Tunnel

The Green Tunnel

Day Six, June 11, Uncle Johnny’s hostel, 12.9 miles: The forest sleeps well, but I don’t. Despite my success hanging the food bag, I worry that something might still get it. The bag is untouched, and I wasted a good night for nothing. I do think there was a mouse scuffling around my tent though. At any rate, poor rest will haunt me today.

A steep uphill to High Rocks and climb along one end of Flattop Mountain prove slow and torturous. These high points occur on either side of Spivey Gap, and trail conditions here are as rocky and rooty as I’ve seen. To be weary in mid-morning is unusual, so I sit on a large log for a bit. It supports my pack lifting its weight from my shoulders and hips, yet allows the pack to serve as a tilted chair. It is surprisingly comfortable leaning back, and I let my gaze lift to the mosaic of sunny and shady leaves overhead.

My Zen Fowler's Toad

My Zen Fowler’s Toad

Though a little warmer and more humid, it is a lovely day. The stillness of the forest reminds me why I come out here and lifts my spirits. In a while, I am refreshed and ready to continue.

The trail crosses Devil’s Creek Gap and runs a zig-zag course down one flank of No Business Ridge and No Business Knob. I’m looking for a good lunch site and wind up walking all the way to No Business Shelter. It occupies a large, flat area facing east, and no one is here. Since the picnic table is in full sun, I choose another great log in the shade and drop my trekking poles against it. At that moment, I notice a very large Fowler’s Toad sitting placidly at one end near a rotted crevice that must be its home. My rudeness does not faze it, neither do my curious stares, pack removal, and incessant photographs. I quietly sit on the other end, leaning comfortably against a cross log, and eat lunch. The toad does not shift, flinch, twitch, or even blink that I can detect. Only the skin below its chin undulates. I tell it about my day.

Fowlers Toad 03, AT TN NC,June 11, 2015A bee joins us. It shifts a lot, waggling in front of me, waggling in front of the toad, investigating the toad’s log crevice, warming in a sunlit patch of leaf litter, cooling on a shady leaf, and chasing off another bee (different species, different pitch to the buzz) that also wants to check out the toad and me. So there we are, the three of us, enjoying one fine afternoon. The earth rotates enough to put the toad’s end of the log in the sun. With the patience of Job, that unflappable toad simply waited for what it knew would come. Its Zen demeanor is an inspiration to me. It has shared things without a sound, without flicking a toe, just the silent flutter of its breathing and calm certainty of its presence.

Glimpse of Erwin, TN

Glimpse of Erwin, TN

Before leaving, I take a quick restroom break a short distance away. Pulling up my pants, I see a man standing by the shelter. There’s nothing in the understory here, and any casual glance from him would have spotted me in a compromised state quite easily. Deciding the direct approach is best, I walk toward my pack and him and call, “Hello.” He looks up, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone was here.” (A true gentleman!) He is ‘Posey Picker,’ a PhD botanist who loves his teaching job and visits the A.T. each summer to relax and renew.

After a little botanical talk, I continue the trail. The next 2.4 miles don’t vary much in elevation before dropping into Temple Hill Gap. The sun now hides behind thick clouds, and thunder lets me know that the remaining 3.4 miles could be wet ones. I eat a snack, put on my pack cover, and climb Temple Hill. It’s a short climb, just a few tenths of a mile. Near the top the trail hits a ridge line, following it over the crest and all the way down to the Nolichucky River and Uncle Johnny’s hostel.

Pirate-Bush

Pirate-Bush

As far as trails go, this ridge line isn’t a problem, fairly smooth going. However, there is a persistent storm with very dark clouds and thunder hovering to my left (north) in no particular hurry to move or dissipate. The ridge is thinly forested, and save for the occasional rhododendron thicket, I can’t help feeling a bit exposed. I dash from thicket to thicket constantly bracing for a torrent. Thunder fades, and just as I think I’ll make it, the rain comes in sheets.

I pull out my umbrella and sit down. It gets breezy, the temperature drops, the rain shows no signs of letting up. Soon my butt is getting wet, so I start hiking again. The descent takes longer than I like, but at least the rain finally stops.

Carolina Hemlock

Carolina Hemlock

The trail follows a ridge line with the apropos name Cliff Ridge perched high above the Nolichucky with a precipitous drop. From there, views of the river and Erwin, TN, pop through at switchbacks. Coming upon one sharp turn, I notice a strange looking shrub straight ahead. It’s Pirate Bush (Buckleya distichophylla), a rare plant in Tennessee, and it is in flower! Snapping photos, I remember it is often associated in a hemi-parasitic relationship with hemlock and look around. Sure enough there are hemlocks here, but they too look a bit strange…it’s another rare plant, Carolina Hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana). I’m in heaven! Pirate Bush isn’t very plentiful, but Carolina Hemlock continues down the ridge for quite some distance.

At last, I reach the road and the river. Uncle Johnny’s is at an intersection a few yards left of the trail. Checking in at 4:50, they tell me the van ride for dinner and shopping leaves at 5:30 and won’t return until 7:30. I have to unpack, shower, and get my laundry started in a half hour. I make it thanks to ‘Giggles.’ Running to the hostel’s one clothes washer, I find someone else’s laundry and detergent in the basket. A tall blonde girl walks in. She offers to share the load. I’m game and add my clothes and detergent to hers. ‘Giggles’ ate in town earlier and isn’t going anywhere. “I’ll do your laundry.” ‘Giggles’ is my new friend.

Uncle Johnny's

Uncle Johnny’s

The dinner choices in town are mediocre Mexican or iffy Italian — clean out the insides or belch garlic all night…decisions, decisions. Joining me for Mexican is the young ex-Navy hiker, who plans to study physics after the A.T. His dream job: working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Last stop of the night is Wal-Mart. I’m not a fan of this chain, but I do buy a bag of Mini Oreos which should get me most of the way to Damascus.

Upon return, ‘Giggles’ is folding our clothes. I help her with what’s left and turn in to sort my resupply and call my children, the cat-sitter, and the Sweetsers. Under the soothing whir of a window fan, I sleep like a baby.

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A.T. Symbol embedded in Hot Springs' sidewalk

A.T. Symbol embedded in Hot Springs’ sidewalk

Section hikers are different from thru-hikers. Relationships between A.T. hikers are affected by when and where they start and finish. For a brief period two years ago, I was part of the crowd setting out from Springer Mountain. Bonds are established in those first weeks of bulging backpacks, sore knees, blistered feet, and foul weather. Everyone shares the same dream — Katahdin in less than six months. Any break in that timing doesn’t just affect the finish date, it loosens those bonds.

Overlooking Hot Springs and the muddy Nolichucky River from Lovers Leap Ridge

Overlooking Hot Springs and the muddy French Broad River from Lovers Leap Ridge

From the start, Katahdin wasn’t my destination, but I still had a kinship with my fellow hikers in 2013. We were all baptized as beginning A.T. journeymen together…at least to Fontana. Resuming the trail in Central Virginia six weeks later, I found subtle differences kept me on the outside looking in. Over three hundred miles of trail, snow storms, bouts with the norovirus, and many new faces had come between me and the thru-hikers. Even when I chanced upon a familiar face, all that had transpired since Fontana eclipsed what we’d shared before Fontana. Plus, they had become hiking machines, leaving me in the dust.

A beautiful White Oak with the Appalachian Trail's double white blazes

A beautiful White Oak with the Appalachian Trail’s white blaze

Not only are there no familiar faces or shared experiences this year, I’m covering a section well behind the typical timing for thru-hikers. Fellow hikers encountered on the trail will probably be a different breed altogether, and I am curious to see just how different. I’m different too this year, not so tightly wound. I hope to be much more of an observer, focused outward, stuck less in my own head.

For the same reason, I can’t help but wonder…without the deep-seated internal drive that motivated me in 2013, will I step up to the challenges of weather, trail conditions, tent camping, shelters, loneliness, gear weight, etc., when a comfortable home and bed are just a phone call away? I discovered in May 2013 that I’m not thru-hiker material. Beyond a certain point, distance hiking isn’t for me. The plan this time is 23 days, walking 268.3 miles to close the gap between Hot Springs, NC, and southwest Virginia to give me 857.5 contiguous trail miles from Springer Mountain, GA, to Rockfish Gap, VA.

View south to the Great Smokies from Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

View south to the Great Smoky Mountains from Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

Since I left the trail at Rockfish Gap two years ago, I’ve only completed a two-night backpacking trip (April 2014), though this paucity is not due to a lack of interest or effort. My A.T. trail scheduling and gear/food preparations have come together without a hitch, including the all-important Oreos. My 2013 experience gave me an understanding and confidence in these matters, and in some respects I feel like a pro. As healthy and strong as I may be physically, however, I expect the first days on trail to be tough. Can I stick with it? Will I enjoy it? Let’s find out.

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Rock stairs signal the start

Rock stairs signal the start

Since my return home in May, I’ve been resting, eating, writing, taking art classes, studying fungi, and enjoying the wonderfully mild summer in Middle Tennessee. Nothing makes you appreciate the little things in life quite like hiking 300 miles in the mountains and living out of a pack on your back for a month. Other than aching feet, my body held up well on trail…until about three days after I got home, and my knees went nuts. I have treated them with tender care — no running, hiking, extra weight, unnecessary squats or lunges. My feet benefited from this pampering too. It was mid July before my knees settled down and felt somewhat normal, just in time to hit the trail again!

Once I made the decisions to abandon plans for a long northern section on the A.T. this year and not redo the trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it made sense to pick up those 33.9 miles I missed from Interstate 40 near Davenport Gap to Hot Springs, NC, due to winter storm Virgil last March. I plan an eight-day trip to cover that short stretch of the A.T and do a backpacking loop on six new trails in the Smokies.

Standing Bear Farm bunkhouse

Standing Bear Farm bunkhouse

Day 1, July 25, 7.7 miles: Friend and always dependable hiking partner Mary McCord agrees to join me for the A.T. and invites me to spend Wednesday evening at her house. This morning she and her husband follow me to Hot Springs where I leave my car, then Mike drops us at the Waterville Exit on I-40 to begin our hike.

Standing Bear Farm

Standing Bear Farm

The A.T. follows Green Corner Road, a gravel road on the north side of the interstate, for a few yards before turning into the woods and climbing a long, steep set of rock stairs. The trail, though out of sight, parallels the road for the first 0.8 mile then intersects it a short distance south of Standing Bear Farm, a popular hiker hostel.

Kitchen

Kitchen

Mary and I walk up the road for a quick visit. Midsummer and winter are the slow seasons here. Northbounders keep the place hopping in spring, and southbounders pass through in the fall. Today there are no guests, and owner Curtis is busy with chores. We say hello. He invites us to look around. Two cabins flank the drive entrance. One is a bunkhouse that accommodates several people. It is charming and rustic on the outside, plain on the inside. Old hiking boots planted with red impatiens flank the entrance. The other cabin, termed the “Presidential Suite,” is furnished with beds and a sleeping loft. It straddles a small stream and the front porch railing’s design incorporates the A.T. logo.

Dining area

Dining area

Behind the bunkhouse is a water well and pump, a fire ring with ample seating, the kitchen/dining/laundry building, and a small booth for phone and internet use. The kitchen features a microwave, gas stovetop, toaster, small refrigerator, sink, mini oven, pots, pans, utensils, mugs, spices, etc., almost everything a cook could want. Shelves of books line the dining area and bunkhouse back porch. For laundry, there is a top loading machine and a washtub with wringer. Standing Bear will take mail drops and carries a selection of food and fuel for purchase. It’s a cool place.

Starry Campion

Starry Campion

From the interstate, the trail climbs 2,763 feet to the top of Snowbird Mountain (4,263) in 5.2 miles. It is not a difficult climb. After Virginia, I’m amazed at the smooth nature of the trail, hardly any rocks! This time of year there are a few slightly overgrown areas, though nothing of significance. We relax and take our time.

Flowering Spurge

Flowering Spurge

Midsummer plants in flower along the trail are Tick Trefoil, Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Sweet Joe Pye-weed, Starry Campion (Silene stellata), Large Tickseed, Tall Phlox, and Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum). Sourwood trees are still dropping their flowers. Indian Pipes are in all stages — flowers, fresh fruit, and dried stems.

Hot Lips fungi emerge encased in a clear, gelatinous coating.

Hot Lips fungi emerge encased in a clear, gelatinous coating.

This has been a wet year thus far, and the fungi are loving it. We see the weird — Hot Lips stalked puffball (Calostoma cinnabarina), the colorful — Viscid Violet Cortinarius (Cortinarius iodes), the tiny — Pinwheel Marasmius (Marasmius rotula), the deadly — Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera), the toothed — (Hydnellum sp.), and the gelatinous — Jelly Babies (Leotia lubrica) along with various corals, fiber fans, boletes, and many others. Mushrooms are very humbling, every outing shows how much I don’t know!

Jelly Babies

Jelly Babies

Mary and I have a blast walking over Snowbird Mountain. In late March, it would have been a desolate winter landscape, but in July it is lush and alive with flowers, butterflies, and lizards. Large Tickseed (Coreopsis major) is beautiful up here among young oaks, fiercely thorned Black Locust shoots, Goldenrod in bud, and Mountain Mint. Blackberry and Blueberry fruits are ripening. Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) threads among the riot of shrubs and saplings.

Yellow Wild Indigo or Horseflyweed

Yellow Wild Indigo or Horseflyweed

Past the fire ring, where we see a young fence lizard, the soil changes to a lichen covered crust, and the plants become sparse. One species stands out in this area, Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) also known by the unflattering common name Horseflyweed. Its distribution is mainly northern but slips south in the Appalachian Highlands. A member of the Pea Family, Horseflyweed fixes nitrogen in the soil allowing it to grow successfully in poor areas too lean for most plants.

Radar on Snowbird Mountain

Radar on Snowbird Mountain

There is a radar facility on Snowbird Mountain, looking nothing like the one on Apple Orchard Mountain in Virginia. It is tiny in comparison and shaped like the capsule of an Apollo space rocket rather than a giant soccer ball. We can hear it humming.

Groundhog Creek Shelter is 2.5 miles down from Snowbird. Mary and I are relieved to have the climbing behind us. Neither of us has done much in recent weeks, and even though the trail up is not hard, the effort has tired us.

Spotted or Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Spotted or Viscid Violet Cortinarius

We are the only hikers at the shelter, a stone structure with an extended roof. The sleeping platform is warped and uneven, the grounds are dirty, and the privy is rather foul. The spring is a good one, though, down a trail to the left. We eat dinner and prepare for bed. I work in my journal while Mary reads the shelter log. The long roof overhang makes the interior quite dim. One person noted, “You could develop film in this shelter, it’s so dark.”

As with most shelters, mice rule the night. They are very noisy this evening and roust both of us in the wee hours chewing heartily on something. We grab headlamps to make sure it isn’t our packs!

Turk's Cap Lily

Turk’s Cap Lily

Day 2, July 26, 13.1 miles: Thanks to the rodents, I awake more tired than when I went to sleep. Mary is snoozing peacefully, and I do not want to get up yet. We’ve got a long day ahead even if nothing appears too taxing. More rest will do us good, or so I tell myself…repeatedly…over the next two hours. At 8:30, I can’t put it off any longer and wake Mary. We aren’t ready to leave until 9:40, a delay I will pay for later.

Blueberries on Snowbird

Blueberries on Snowbird

Our first task is a gradual, 900-foot climb (tough in a few places) followed by a short descent over 2.9 miles to Brown Gap. We rest a few minutes on logs at the junction with a gravel forest service road and eat a snack before starting the next section — a steep climb to a relatively level ridge line leading to Max Patch.

The trail along the ridge is lined with plants chest to head high. We see Summer Phlox, Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana), Black Cohosh, Pale Jewelweed, a species of Agrimony, and Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens). Bees are busily working the flowers. Many plants are setting fruit too. Nodding Mandarin, Speckled Wood Lily, Indian Cucumber-root, and Blue Cohosh fruits are still green and unripe. Huckleberry, Solomon’s Plume, and Painted Trillium fruits are brightly colored and ready to do their job.

Tall Bellflower with a friend

Tall Bellflower with a friend

At the end of the ridge, we cross Max Patch Road SR 1182 and rest for lunch before our climb to the summit. I drop my peanut butter tortilla face down in the dirt and wind up consuming quite a bit of grit. We meet other summer hikers enjoying a mountain vacation.

Butter & Eggs on Max Patch

Butter & Eggs on Max Patch

The forest opens and the trail steepens as we near the top. Max Patch is a grassy bald with mown strips for the A.T. and a short approach trail from a parking area near the road. The views are spectacular. At the crest, a geodetic marker is set in a small concrete square in the center of the trail. Mary and I meet a friendly couple out for the day at the crest, and the lady offers to take our picture.

Max Patch isn’t as interesting botanically as Snowbird Mountain. The first plants to greet us are Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and the nonnatives Butter & Eggs (Linaria vulgaris) and Queen Anne’s Lace. The last is Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium).

View from Max Patch

View from Max Patch

A short distance from the summit, the trail reenters the woods. Here, my normally keen sense of the trail fails, and I lead us past a campsite for several minutes, before the rough surroundings raise enough flags to make me turn back. At the campsite, I can see an obvious path that makes a sharp right turn the instant the trail leaves the bald and hits the woods. In my defense, the wide campsite path continues straight ahead, and the trail blazes are not well placed to avoid confusion.

Mary & I on Max Patch

Mary & I, Max Patch

The dirt sandwich I ate for lunch is expanding uncomfortably in my tummy. A foot is giving me some trouble, and my right hip is hurting. I’m hot and sweaty. These physical woes combined with the wrong turn, extra steps, and wasted time darken my mood dramatically. The afternoon does what it often did in Virginia, slow to a miserable crawl. Fortunately, I have a secret weapon with me today, a hiking partner. Mary’s mood rarely shifts from upbeat and happy. She stays close and talks me down. The rest of the day is still very hard, just not as emotional and upsetting. The miles, the weight, and the terrain take their usual toll, but with a companion to talk to, it is easier to bear. We stop briefly at Roaring Fork Shelter for a snack.

Amanita onusta mushroom

Amanita onusta mushroom

From Max Patch to Lemon Gap the trail descends gradually 1100 feet over 5.4 miles. We roll into the gap at 5:30. A van is parked there, and the name painted on the side suggests a group of teenagers on a wilderness weekend. The shelter is 1.3 miles up Walnut Mountain. We have not brought tents with us, and fear of a crowded shelter ignites what little energy we have left to tackle the final climb.

On the way up, it begins to thunder uncomfortably close. I pull out all the stops to reach the shelter and claim two spots for us. Walnut Mountain has a small open summit. Amid black clouds and loud thunder, I bolt across without looking at a thing. Once the trail reenters the woods, the shelter is visible a short distance down.

Skeletonized leaf

Skeletonized leaf

There are no teenagers, just two young men hiking the A.T. for a month and another young man hiking with his mother for the weekend. The mother and son are in a tent. The two guys move to one side of the shelter, giving Mary and me the other side. I drop my gear and race to filter water before the rain.

The spring is located at the end of a long trail to the left of the shelter. Two-thirds of the way down, the path slices through a gauntlet of weeds and brambles towering overhead  snagging skin and clothing. The spring is a meager trickle of water into a pool barely big enough to dip cupped hands. There is a length of pipe there, but no water flows through it. Without the aid of the pipe, I cannot get water in the “dirty” bladder of my Platypus GravityWorks filter system.

Painted Trillium fruit

Painted Trillium fruit

I spend many precious minutes positioning the pipe for flowing water. Once in place, the bag’s angle is so flat, I can’t even get a liter before it overflows. The process is painstakingly slow. It begins to rain. The rain is light, and I’m sheltered under a dense canopy of trees. Knowing Mary will need water too, I keep filtering to fill my pack bladder and the clean water bag (4 L). The weather worsens, and I’m forced to leave with just two liters of clean water. It will at least get us through dinner. As I plunge into the weeds, the rain falls in buckets! I struggle uphill and arrive drenched.

A lousy spring is not Walnut Mountain’s worst feature. The shelter is a dilapidated dump. It is small, cramped, dark, and dirty. The sleeping platform is missing several planks allowing gear to fall down and various critters to crawl up. The roof leaks in three places. During the hour-long torrential rain, we set out cookware to catch what water we can. The privy is so full of s**t, users must lean forward and hold their butts in the air. Three of the four food cables are broken. Walnut Mountain is a prime candidate for replacement or arson.

Summit of Bluff Mountain

Summit of Bluff Mountain

Day 3, July 27, 13.1 miles: Despite the misery of the weather and shelter, I sleep fairly well. Exhaustion pays. Mary and I rise at 6:30 to the sound of thunder. Rain delays our start until 7:50. While packing this morning, the pains in my foot and hip resurface. I suck it up and hope movement will work them out.

The trail descends Walnut Mountain less than a mile to Kale Gap then climbs nearly 1,000 feet to the summit of Bluff Mountain in 1.7 miles. These are not difficult sections unless a hip flexor muscle starts screaming. I barely manage a slow pace downhill, and any step up with my right leg proves excruciating. At Kale Gap, I ask Mary to pull my first aid kit from my pack and take an Aleve. Every forward swing of my leg is torturous until the medication takes effect. By the time we hit Bluff Mountain at 9:40, I’m feeling much better physically, which is also a tremendous relief mentally.

Painted Bolete mushroom

Painted Bolete mushroom

From Bluff Mountain, it is an elevation drop of 3,300 feet to Hot Springs, NC. It takes us a little over two hours to reach Garenflo Gap (four miles), nearly two-thirds of that drop, at the mountain’s base. We lunch at a small footbridge in Taylor Hollow Gap.

There are more cool mushrooms in the forest. Painted Bolete (Suillus pictus) has fibrous reddish scales on its cap. Numerous attempts to capture a sharp Green-headed Jelly Club (Leotia viscosa) in pixels fails. A baby Yellow Patches (Amanita flavoconia), minus its yellow patches, sits brightly among pine needles.

Green-headed Jelly Club

Green-headed Jelly Club

The final six miles continue the downward trend but include some short uphills giving a bit of a roller coaster look to the profile. The morning has been cool and cloudy. Sunshine breaks through in the afternoon, and coupled with lower elevation, the temperature begins to rise. The young men from Walnut Mountain Shelter pass us, looking forward to the simple pleasure of a long soak in a hot spring while sipping a cold beer.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Three miles from the end, Mary and I eat a snack at the side trail junction to Deer Park Mountain Shelter. The young man and his mother catch up to us here. Mom and son high five her achievement for the day. They are staying at the shelter tonight and will enjoy an easy afternoon.

We face a final short climb of Deer Park Mountain followed by a steady descent into town. Hot Springs is audible and visible long before we reach the parking lot on Serpentine Road. At 4:20 I unlock my car, remove my pack, and change shoes. It’s wonderful to sit in plush car seats.

Boot brush sign

Boot brush sign

There is a sign at the trailhead telling hikers about the spread of nonnative invasive plant species like Japanese Stiltgrass, Garlic Mustard, Chinese Silvergrass, Kudzu, Oriental Bittersweet, and Japanese Spiraea. Sponsored and built by the Southern Appalachian Cooperative Weed Management Partnership, the signs have a boot brush installed at the base, so hikers can scrape mud and debris, often containing weed seeds, from their boots before entering the trail. It’s a great education tool, and one small, easy way to slow the spread of these pest plants.

On the drive to Cosby, TN, we run into a thunderstorm. The original plan was to take Mary home, pick up some gear left there, and drive to Cataloochee Campground for the night. The storms, body aches, and fatigue combined with the lateness of the day, prompt me to seek another overnight invitation at Mary’s. She’s more than willing and such a great hostess. It is far preferable to bathe, methodically prepare my gear for the park loop, and sleep soundly (through more storms overnight) in a cool, dry bed.

Carolina Mountain Club sign in Hot Springs, NC

Carolina Mountain Club sign in Hot Springs, NC

A.T. Postscript: My Appalachian Trail hiking for this year is at an end. For 2014, I’m leaning toward 300 miles through Shenandoah to Duncannon, PA, in late spring with the possibility of New Hampshire in midsummer, provided all goes well and there isn’t something else I’d rather do. My rigid approach to hiking the A.T. has relaxed considerably after 589 miles. I’ll do what feels good when it feels right. Meanwhile, I’ve still got a third of the Smokies’ trails calling my name. It’s time to get back to the place I love.

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Young Eastern Ratsnake

Young Eastern Ratsnake

Day 25, May 22, 15.8 miles: This is the last week of my trip. The daily hikes scheduled involve long miles and jagged, steep terrain. I figured I would be trail hardened and ready for this final push. In some respects I am.  After the spirit salve of Tinker Cliffs and body rest in Daleville, week three proved more stable and enjoyable all the way around. I even notched a 17-mile, personal-best day. Perhaps I’m over the hump. Physically, I am quite capable of what lies ahead. Can I say the same about my mental and emotional states? We’ll see.

Chokecherry

Chokecherry

The day begins easy enough with a gentle climb out of the Brown Mountain Creek area to U.S. 60. A small Eastern Ratsnake darts across my path. Its bright pattern makes me think it is a Northern Pinesnake, whose spotty distribution includes the mountains of Central Virginia. However, this little guy doesn’t have four prefrontal scales, and further research reveals juvenile ratsnake patterning that fits to a T.

Past the road, the trail becomes fairly steep on its way to Bald Knob at 4,000 feet, but moderates at the halfway point. Bald Knob isn’t really bald. Its top, a scattered maze of large granite boulders dotting the rounded summit, creates a perfect opportunity to play “Are We There Yet?” At times like this, it is best to stop thinking and simply walk, look, listen, and sniff.

Wild Strawberry

Wild Strawberry

The Virginia mountains are often clothed in twiggy shrubs that resemble black cherries. These are Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) with fragrant racemes of white flowers. Allegheny Stonecrop or Live-for-ever (Hylotelephium telephioides) won’t flower until late summer but large clusters of the fleshy leaves are tucked among the boulders. Wild Geranium, Appalachian Phacelia, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis) , Large White (Pink) Trillium, and Big-fruit Hawthorn are flowering. Various birds whistle their greetings: Veery, Eastern Towhee, and Eastern Wood-Pewee.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain

From Bald Knob, the trail drops to a side trail leading to Cow Camp Gap Shelter more than a half mile off the A.T. I doubt many thru-hikers stay there. The trail climbs again to 4,000 feet and the top of Cold Mountain, crossing the broad summit through open meadows. The landscape and views are very lovely here. A wooden sign expressly forbids camping or campfires in the open and mown areas, a few paces later, I come upon a smoldering campfire. Such selfish jerks, I’m surprised they didn’t use the sign for fuel!

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain

It’s a gentle walk down to Hog Camp Gap and a gravel US Forest Service road. The gap features a wonderful meadow with several campsites. I had planned to stay here tonight, but my recent tick experiences have caused me to change plans. This meadow is so green and cool and pleasant, I am sorely tempted to stay anyway. The afternoon is sunny with big sailing clouds and a cooling breeze — nearly perfect. I’ve already gone 8.1 miles, and it would be wonderful to laze away the afternoon. There is a couple doing just that under the shade of a distant tree. I eat lunch, debate some more, and finally decide to push on. Afternoon storms are in the forecast, and I will need to travel 7.7 additional miles to reach Seeley-Woodworth Shelter.

Hog Camp Gap

Hog Camp Gap

Elevation change is modest through this section, and in many places the trail is quite smooth. Those darned rocky patches always manage to show up, however, with uncanny timing. It’s Appalachian Trail Truism #8 — Just When You Note the Smooth and Easy Trail, Here Come the Rocks. No matter how long or short the interval, the instant I remark to myself, “The trail is great,” the surface turns into a rocky jumble. On a gentle descent, trail like silk, excellent opportunity to make good time…the very moment I observe this, its character changes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.

As the afternoon drags by, my mood darkens and emotions rise. The sight of pink trilliums and the Veery’s song help somewhat, but my feet are killing me. No matter how easy the hiking conditions may be, I’m more than ready to stop. The sky is now clouded. Off in the distance is thunder. Two campsites are noted on “AWOL’s” profile within two miles of the shelter. One along the Piney River is damp and occupied. The second one doesn’t exist.

Wood Betony

Wood Betony

Near exhaustion and breakdown, I arrive at the shelter after 10.75 hours on trail. The thunder is getting much closer, requiring an immediate run for water. Two guys set up their tents, and “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” roll in just before the rain hits. The lightning is wicked, and it begins to hail. It’s a full-blown, hard-core, torrential thunderstorm. As it weakens into an ordinary rainstorm, two couples (one from Germany) wash up drenched to the bone. They pour water out of their boots, and wring out sopping wet clothes that stand no chance of drying overnight.

Juvenal's Duskying on Wood Betony

Juvenal’s Duskying on Wood Betony

Both couples are in good moods, taking the wet in stride. They are anticipating Waynesboro in a few days. The movie Star Trek Into Darkness is on one man’s agenda.   Thanks to smart phones and iPads, technology is never far from trail. Many hikers time their town stops to download the latest episode of the HBO series Game of Thrones and discuss the new plot twists. Hiking the A.T. ain’t what it used to be!

Lovely pink form of Large White Trillium

Lovely pink form of Large White Trillium

You learn a lot listening to hikers’ experiences. As a section hiker, I opted to arrange my own resupplies rather than scrounge whatever is available in towns. Those who do shop at each stop have learned that Dollar General stores are far superior to Family Dollar in the quantity and quality of resupply items. I’ve also heard horror stories on some of the motels along the way. Relax Inn at the Groseclose, VA, I-81 exit where I started nearly four weeks ago is a dirty dive, stinking of stale cigarette smoke with walls coated in grime and nicotine. A couple complained that a motel in Pearisburg was so dirty, they refused to take a shower!! Imagine how bad that must have been for a thru-hiker to forego a bath! One of the German couple’s trekking poles broke. Rather than buy an expensive replacement, they opted for a cheap one at Walmart. When I cautioned they might regret not having spent more money on better quality, the man says, “I’ve got the receipt. When it breaks, I’ll get a free replacement at the next Walmart…and the next…and the next…until I finish.” That is one way to get your money’s worth.

The storm has cooled things down quite a bit. It’s windy too. Everyone dons warm clothes, eats warm food, and curls inside warm sleeping bags. While disappointed in my emotional reactions on trail this afternoon, I’m pleased to have made it this far and look forward to a shorter day tomorrow.

Spy Rock - the shadowy lump behind the trees

Spy Rock – the shadowy lump behind the trees

Day 26, May 23, 14.2 miles: The Priest Shelter, on top of The Priest Mountain (4,063 feet), is the intended destination 6.6 miles along an undulating trail that never strays lower than 3200 feet. The plan is to arrive for lunch and have a quiet, relaxing afternoon. However, looking ahead to the next day, the elevation change is so dramatic (7,000 feet including Three Ridges Mountain), I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t try to reach Harpers Creek 7.6 miles further and take my low-mileage day tomorrow. It’s impossible to know what is best. You just make a decision and live with the consequences good or bad.

All morning I’m ‘taking my temperature’ to see if I can pull off 14.2 miles after yesterday’s 15.8. Two miles into the day is a short but steep rocky road to Spy Rock, a massive chunk of rock to the right of the trail past a level campsite. All I see is the back side of this hunkering rock. There is a path through crevices to climb to the other side where the views would be, but the morning is cool and cloudy. The view wouldn’t be worth the time or effort.

Crevice through Spy Rock

Crevice through Spy Rock

There is one more steep climb on rock steps before the trail taps into a gently graded road easing up The Priest. The sun is trying to come out. I sit down at 11:30 on the approach trail to the shelter to make the final determination. If I’m going to continue, I need to get going. More afternoon storms are predicted. This is a tough and wrenching decision. I really am worn out and don’t want to push my luck with rain, yet I also know tomorrow will be an absolute bear if I go no further. I’m looking at a 3100-foot descent of The Priest over five miles and nearly three more miles to the shelter including an 1100-foot climb. I cowboy up and take the plunge.

The Priest Shelter is just shy of the summit. The remaining climb and trek over the top goes quickly. Then comes the descent. As relatively easy as the approach from the south is, the trail heading north is a horrible rocky beast. It is exceptionally steep, rough, and very slow going nearly half the way down. While eating lunch, the sky turns dark. I put on rain gear just in time. Fortunately, the trail smooths out as light rain turns into a thundershower.

Spy Rock again

Spy Rock again

The rain lasts over an hour. At the base of The Priest is VA 56 and a parking area. Across the road is the Tye River. “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” are huddled under a kiosk roof with “Caboose,” one of the tent campers last night. “Sweet Pea” is holding a large plastic container full of cookies. Just a few minutes ago, “Steamer” was here with his wife celebrating his completion of the A.T. I’m sorry I missed it, though I do enjoy a chocolate chip cookie in his honor. Poor “Sweet Pea” is stuck holding this large plastic plate and lid “Steamer” left behind. She and “Oaks” are too conscientious to leave it on the ground or next to a parked car and will cram it into their packs until they find a trash can.

It is still raining lightly as I cross the road and river to climb 1.7 miles. It is after 3:00 p.m., and I’m hitting the wall. It takes 1.5 agonizing hours to make the climb. Once I reach the top, there is still 1.1 miles to go amid tears, aching feet, and fatigue. Two-tenths mile before the shelter there is a rock hop of Harpers Creek. The water is high, and it is tricky to negotiate. When I reach the shelter, it is located on the opposite side of the creek, necessitating another tricky crossing. There are campsites just before the shelter and stream, but they are muddy, and I want to get out of the damp. I make it over the creek both times without getting any wetter.

Hairy-joint Meadow Parsnip

Hairy-joint Meadow Parsnip

“Caboose” is already there. He passed me on the way up. “Sweet Pea” and “Oaks” arrive in a short while. The noisy creek is in front of the shelter down a short bank, the privy is uphill to the left. My shelter mates string line for wet clothes to at least air if not dry. “Oaks” sleeping pad has a leak, and duct tape isn’t sticking. I let him use my tenacious tape which appears to hold.

“Oaks” is a self-taught musician on several stringed instruments and carries a travel mandolin that looks more like a small dulcimer. He curls in the corner and plays for a while. He is quite good. “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” have been married three years. They are the same age as my son, 24, and live in North Carolina. After their Maine Coon cat, Milo, suddenly died, they decided the time was right to hike the A.T. With their gear, a book of Wendell Berry poems, the mandolin, and each other, they have all they need to walk to Maine.

"Oaks" and "Sweet Pea"

“Oaks” and “Sweet Pea”

I enjoy their company and conversation. “Sweet Pea” hears me express a craving for Oreos and offers me a few of theirs. I assure her I’m packing as many as I can carry…enough to get me to Rockfish Gap!

Shelter journals can offer some interesting observations. One guy wrote that an A.T. hiker from years ago said the trail wasn’t nearly as rough with so much mountain climbing when he did it. He blamed trail clubs trying to outdo each other and make their segment harder than anyone else’s. The writer noted, “Sounds like a small penis issue to me.” We all get a good laugh out of that comment.

Two more guys saunter in for the night, and we have another thunderstorm at dusk, though the brunt of it skirts past us.

The rocky A.T. on Three Ridges Mountain...I'm not making this up!

The rocky A.T. on Three Ridges Mountain…proof I’m not exaggerating!

Day 27, May 24, 6.2 miles: Today really will be a short day. All I have to do is climb over Three Ridges Mountain, 3300 feet total elevation change. I won’t even need a Snickers bar! However, all those storms were associated with the passage of a cold front. Behind it are clearing skies, howling wind, and winter-like temperatures. Whee!

I sleep in a bit and take my time, leaving at 9:00. Within a few feet of the shelter, I slip crossing Harpers Creek and plunge my right foot deep in the water. Whoopee! What a way to start the day.

Like the upper reaches of The Priest’s north side, the southern approach to Three Ridges is a steep, rocky beast. It takes an hour and 15 minutes to go 1.5 miles. The next section is even steeper. Trekking poles drag as my hands are needed as much as my feet to scramble up some parts. Factor in the fierce wind, and it is tough going this morning. Despite the terrain, I’m glad to be going uphill, generating internal heat. It is downright cold up here.

More rocky trail on Three Ridges

More rocky trail on Three Ridges

It’s rocky all the way up. Going uphill with this type of trail condition sure beats going down. Sometimes the trail is just a boulder field, an indecipherable mess of rocks to negotiate. It’s a matter of foot management, coordinating eyes and brain to think through the best placement. Soon it becomes second nature. With an eye scoping the ground a few feet ahead, you can intuit the best spot to set each foot. On less rocky sections, it’s possible to step around them — dancing with the trail. It requires effort and is tiring but not as demoralizing as Garden Mountain, where it was nearly impossible to find a rockless spot that did not require focus and diligence.

Unlike the flat, five-mile drudge of Garden Mountain, Three Ridges also presents the easily conquered challenges of an occasional scramble. Not death defying like Cove Mountain, these scrambles serve mainly to break up the monotony and add spark and life to the hike. I’ve complained so much about the rocks in Central Virginia and called such attention to my emotional reaction to long, hard days, I want to state for the record that I’m not someone who expects or even wants smooth flat trails through idyllic forests, at least not all the time. I appreciate the extra kick required on parts of this trail and have taken pride in rising to the occasion.

Hanging Rock Overlook

Hanging Rock Overlook

I’ve successfully made it through every inch of the trail covered thus far like every other hiker, proving I can do this, tears or no tears. I’ve been able to physically handle the tough parts even if I don’t always handle them well emotionally. Many of the hardest sections I’ve genuinely enjoyed, and if I wasn’t carrying 35 pounds on my back, I’d enjoy them even more!

I pause at the top for that Snickers bar I didn’t think I’d need and keep going. It has taken two hours and 40 minutes to go 3.3 miles. Maupin Field Shelter is another 2.9 miles from Three Ridges summit. The hike down is much easier. Still rocky, but less so and not nearly as steep.

Rock Harlequin

Rock Harlequin

Hanging Rock Overlook is a wide, flat ledge above a sheer cliff about a third of the way down. The little annual Corydalis sp., Rock Harlequin, is beautiful on the ledge. There are more Allegheny Stonecrop and Staghorn Sumac too. It’s a pretty view from the overlook, but there are so many “pretty” views, they begin to run together. It’s not quite an Appalachian Trail Truism because there will always be notable exceptions, but for the most part, if you’ve seen one standard scenic mountain view, you’ve seen them all.

I get to Maupin Field Shelter at 1:30. “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” have stopped for lunch. As I fix my meal and eat, we chat about my kids. They want to know what my children think of my hiking. Kate, Sam, and I are close, and they are very supportive as long as they know I’m OK. Sam has told his friends and coworkers about my trip with the observation, “My mom’s a badass.”

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

I’m staying here tonight, but “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” are hiking as far as they can today to reach Waynesboro tomorrow. I won’t see them again. They are such a wonderful couple, and I wish them the best of luck with the trail and the rest of their lives. With a wave and smile, they’re off.

A few minutes later, they return. I joke, “That was fast. How was Waynesboro?” “Oaks” wants to ask me a question and tells me I can say no if it makes me uncomfortable. He and “Sweet Pea” wonder if they could pray with me. I am touched. We put our arms around each other as “Oaks” thanks God for bringing “G-Sprout” into their lives and asks him to watch over me. I now have a legitimate reason for tears. We hug each other, and “Sweet Pea” says, “You are an inspiration to us. We think you are bold.” “Yeah,” says “Oaks.” “You’re a badass!”

The area around Maupin Field is flat with many campsites, a decent privy, and a very good spring behind the shelter. Another shelter-loving Phoebe family built a nest off to the side where hiker activity will cause less disruption. The Mau-Har Trail ties into the A.T. here and three miles away below the Harpers Creek Shelter, following Campbell Creek to a 40-foot waterfall about halfway between the junctions. It’s Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and a few recreational hikers are out despite the chilly weather walking this loop.

Rock formation on Three Ridges

Rock formation on Three Ridges

The sun is bright, and I set out wet clothes, boots, and gear which the wind threatens to blow away. I’d love to sit in the sun, but the wind is too brutal. In the shelter out of the wind, it is plain cold. I’m wearing a long sleeve shirt, two coats, and gloves. Just my luck…a sunny afternoon to explore or simply sit at the picnic table and write is ruined by high wind and cold. All I can do is hunker. It must be Blackberry Winter.

There are only two days left of my trip, and I am glad. My feet hurt. I’m tired of carrying this weight. I’m tired of uphills and downhills and rocks. I’m tired of dreary shelters. I’m tired of my tent, which now feels more like a siliconized nylon coffin. I’m tired of being dirty. I’m tired of being wet. I’m tired of hiking alone. I’m tired of eating peanut butter and dehydrated dinners. Each night I’ve been bribing myself with Oreos. If I eat the entire meal, I can have five cookies for dessert. That has been the highlight every day this past week. When the most enjoyable moment on trail is eating an Oreo, it’s time to go home.

Three hikers join me in the shelter, and a few others are scattered in tents. Tonight will be the coldest since March.

Well-crafted rock steps on a switchback

Well-crafted rock steps on a switchback

Day 28, May 25, 15.8 miles: My pack thermometer reads 35 degrees this morning. It’s the last full day of hiking, and I’m on trail at 7:40 a.m. The first two miles are smooth walking and bring me back in contact with the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has been meandering far to the west since Punchbowl Shelter. The trail and BRP brush next to each other at Reeds Gap and cross at Three Ridges Overlook.

Fringe Tree

Fringe Tree

The five miles between Reeds Gap and the second BRP crossing at Dripping Rock is mostly flat, but in Central Virginia never assume that means easy. When the trail has traveled close to the parkway before, the footpath has been relatively smooth through rich forests. I was expecting this condition to continue. It doesn’t. In many long stretches, the trail is nothing but a continuous, churned jumble of small boulders requiring careful and dextrous foot placement.

Cedar Cliffs

Cedar Cliffs

These boulder fields are immensely wearing, but I’m handling things quite well this morning. It’s a sunny day, not as cold or windy as yesterday, but cool enough to keep moving. In a few areas where the elevation does change a bit, there are often rock steps, particularly at switchbacks. Sometimes these are just appropriately placed big rocks stuck in dirt as fitting a wilderness setting. In a few instances, they are well-crafted stairs looking more like an expensive landscape element in a private garden — wide and solid with side walls curving through the switchback.

Dwarf Dandelion and the foliage of Appalachian Fameflower upper right

Dwarf Dandelion and the foliage of Appalachian Fameflower upper right

The trail runs straight northeast and parallels BRP along a nameless ridge to Cedar Cliffs. By no measure equivalent to Tinker Cliffs, Cedar Cliffs does have one breathtaking claim — Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) in spectacular flower. Scattered across the flat rocky ledge and tucked among Eastern Red Cedars, the Fringe Trees are dripping with bright, feathery flowers. The flowers, each featuring long, thin, creamy white petals, are clustered in large, drooping panicles on every branch for an incredible show.

Natural garden with Appalachian Stonecrop and Marginal Woodfern

Natural garden with Appalachian Stonecrop and Marginal Woodfern

There is an interesting mix of plants on and near the cliffs. Solomon’s Seal is in flower in the shade, and in the sun, Appalachian Fameflower (Phermeranthus teretifolius [Talinum teretifolium]) and Dwarf Dandelion (Krigia virginica) are scattered in pockets of thin soil and moss mats. Just past the cliffs where the trail reenters the forest, a grouping of Marginal Woodfern and Appalachian Stonecrop interspersed with wispy blue flowers of Appalachian Phacelia and outlined in stone looks like a designed garden.

Wild Sarsaparilla

Wild Sarsaparilla

There are many people visiting Cedar Cliffs. It must be a popular destination. This area is fragile ecologically, and camping is not permitted. So of course there is a fire ring right in the middle of the cliffs. The sense of entitlement some people display is astounding.

Green Violet

Green Violet

Just past the Dripping Spring crossing of BRP, I stop for lunch. I’ve gone 6.5 miles and have another 9.3 to go. Like so many of the forest sections adjacent to BRP, this area is quite rich botanically. Appalachian Gooseberry (Ribes rotundifolium) is setting fruit. Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is in flower. Its large compound leaf shades clusters of tiny greenish white flowers on a short separate stalk at the base. There are several Green Violets (Hybanthus concolor). Not recognizable as a violet at all, these unassuming plants with tiny green flowers are easily overlooked. Finally, there is Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum). I am surprised at how late they are flowering this year.

Solomon's Plume

Solomon’s Plume

After Laurel Spring Gap, the ATC book says the trail begins a steep ascent on boulders. This is false. There are no boulders at all. The trail is terraced into a long series of shallow steps with landscaping timbers. It is quite easy to climb.

The terraced section signals the ascent of Humpback Mountain. At the top, the trail skirts the narrow ledge of a steep cliff. Hikers hug the shrubs on the left to tip toe past the plunging edge. Black Chokeberry and Chokecherry are in flower. I’ve now gone 9.3 miles with 6.5 to go.

A long rock wall parallels the A.T. for a bit, and parts of the trail follow old rocky roadbeds on the descent. Walking down Humpback, I have two wildlife encounters. A deer bounds across the trail behind me, and I flush two enormous Turkey Vultures from their roost, their wrinkled red heads shining in the sun.

Narrow cliff edge at the summit of Humpback Mountain

Narrow cliff edge at the summit of Humpback Mountain

The afternoon slows down, and so do I. Various side trails (Humpback Gap, Humpback Visitor Center, Albright Loop) should appear soon. Around each bend, I anticipate one only to be disappointed. The last three miles are smoother and easier walking, but the distance, time, and weight have taken their toll. I’m a teary mess yet again.

Paul C. Wolfe Shelter sits on a hillside across and above Mill Creek. There are already several tents between the creek and shelter. These are mostly weekend hikers. The shelter has a covered porch with picnic table and windows. A waterfall and swimming hole are downstream 100 yards. The privy is perched on a steep hillside to the left of the shelter. It’s the dirtiest and most decrepit I’ve seen in Virginia.

I sleep one final night in my tent and finish my Oreos.

Appalachian Gooseberry

Appalachian Gooseberry

Day 29, May 26, 5.2 miles: I’m up early and ready to go before 8:00. Last night, two hikers set their sleeping bags under the stars near my tent, and I step past them, still snuggled deep, as quietly as possible. Very little stands between me and the end — a short trek up Elk Mountain, cruise along the ridge, brief descent, and quick climb to Rockfish Gap.

Mayo Cabin

Mayo Cabin

A mile from the shelter a tiny, overgrown cemetery lies to the right of the trail on a side path. The few headstones are flat rocks bearing faintly etched names and dates now nearly indiscernible. A half mile further are the remains of the Mayo Cabin right on the trail. Perhaps this belonged to an ancestor of Smokies hiking buddy Clarence.

Yellow Pimpernel (Taenidia intergerrima) is in flower this morning as is Rue Anemone. The very first wildflower I saw in March was a tiny Rue Anemone braving the late winter in Nantahala Gorge near NOC. It is fitting, I suppose, that one should be present to bid me farewell for the year.

After a few stream crossings, I hear traffic noise…too much for BRP alone. For the first time, I have reached a destination much more quickly than I thought. I’ve arrived at Rockfish Gap and the convergence of Interstate 64, US 250, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive. It’s 10:30.

Yellow Pimpernel

Yellow Pimpernel

The Sweetsers are driving up BRP, camping a night or two, to meet me here at noon. The Afton Mountain Visitor Center, near the Inn at Afton, is our rendezvous point. Across the parkway on US 250, there are several dilapidated buildings including what remains of an old motel. Surely this isn’t the Inn at Afton! Another abandoned building is next to it with a food truck parked in front. Big Momma’s Kettle Corn is open for business.

The owner sees me wandering around looking lost and asks if he can help. He points to a steep road and tells me the visitor center is up there. The road makes a wide loop, passes a small prefabricated building, and continues to the Inn at Afton, a nice multistory hotel. The visitor center is in the little prefab building.

Rue Anemone

Rue Anemone

Inside is a very knowledgeable and helpful man, volunteering at the center. His trail name is “Yellow Truck.” He shuttles hikers around the area and knows all the good places to visit, eat, hike, whatever diversion you’re looking for. He welcomes me and invites me to sit, which I most gladly do. I also change from boots to camp shoes.  As I do, he and I talk about the A.T. and my plans. When I’m ready to hike Shenandoah, I can leave my car at the center, hike to Duncannon, PA, take a train to Charlottesville, VA, and “Yellow Truck” will pick me up and bring me back to the car!

Shenandoah National Park sign is in the background.

Shenandoah National Park sign is in the background.

In a few minutes I see Susan Sweeter’s face at the door and rush to give her a hug. Allen and their dog Lacie are walking outside. I gather my gear, and we drive into Waynesboro for Sunday buffet at Ming Garden. Hikers have been salivating over the prospects of Ming Garden for days. It is THE place to eat in Waynesboro. The restaurant is spacious and attractive inside. There is a grill to order custom meals, a sushi bar, a salad bar, a dessert bar, ice cream, and several steam tables of seafood, chicken, beef, pork, vegetables…just about every food item you could want. The price, under $11 per person, cannot be beat. We stuff ourselves.

It’s now time for the long ride home. It will take over five hours to reach the Sweetser’s house outside Knoxville and another three for me to get home. The boys, Pickles and Tucker (my cats), are asleep when I arrive. It takes them a minute to comprehend that their mom is really home. I relax with a lapful of purring kitties and after a shower, crawl into the most comfortable bed on earth to sleep soundly.

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