Since leaving Springer Mountain nearly two months ago, I have been intently focused on getting to one place or the next. First it was to reach Davenport Gap so that I could take off for a week to attend a conference. Then it was to spend a weekend with Kim at Trail Days. I had to keep moving. I couldn't let weather, trail conditions, or how I was feeling slow me down. Today I told Kim I was ready to lift my foot off the gas pedal, at least just a bit. From now on, I reasoned, I don't have a tight schedule to meet. I can take it easy. But honestly, I'm probably fooling myself to think that. There are still more the 1600 miles ahead of me, and I need to walk them in four months. At my speed, that leaves little time for loafing.
Today was a time to relax, rejuvenate, reconnect and resupply. In other words, it was time to revive a worn-out hiker. The location for this recovery to take place was Trail Days.
Day 39, Hurricane Mountain Shelter to Mt. Rogers Visitors Center
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden
For the last three days I have passed a steady stream of hikers walking in the opposite direction. Fewer hikers have passed me lately, but on Tuesday and Wednesday I walked by dozens of southbound hikers. It was as if I was going the wrong way. It felt like I was missing out on something big. While it's true most of the hikers were headed to something big, I won't miss out completely. I am headed there too, only in a more round-about way. Our destination is Trail Days at Damascus, which has been likened by some to Woodstock or Burning Man or some other large bacchanal.
When I left my campsite this morning I was walking at an elevation above 5,000 feet, but not for long. The trail soon began a slow descent and it will be a long time before it takes me to this elevation again. I will not be above 5,000 feet again until I reach Mount Lafayette in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That's more than 1,300 miles away. The trail will stay mostly below 3,000 feet until it crosses Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. For now, though, I can be content with focusing on something much smaller. I will be walking through meadows populated by more than 100 wild ponies.
I have been doggedly focused the last few days on reaching a road crossing on the trail where my wife can pick me up Friday afternoon. Nevertheless, being successful at this will take more than just determination. I must hike about 18 miles a day for the next three days. I can't slow down. I can't stop early because I'm tired. If the skies remain free of rain and the footpath continues to be easy to walk, I have a better shot of reaching my goal, but I will need more help than that.
In hiker terms, a zero is a day when you don't hike any miles. A nero is when you hike just a few miles to get into town, or stay in town until late and then hike just a few miles to leave. Near zero, get it? Today would be a good day for a nero. I camped last night just six miles from Damascus, Va. If I wanted a nice, long day in town to relax, the opportunity was there for that today. Maybe I can take a nero some day soon, but right now I have no time for it.
On any given day in the Spring, Summer and Fall, thousands of people are hiking the Appalachian Trail. Not all are thru-hikers, nor are they even heading in the same direction. Nevertheless, no matter where you are, there are likely to be many hikers near you on the trail. This is especially noticeable around shelters, hostels, and other places hikers gather at night. The trail isn't as crowded as it was when I started in Georgia. Several hikers have dropped out and several have sped ahead or have fallen behind me, but I usually see many hikers each day. Despite that, there can be long miles and time in which I never see another soul. It may be that hikers are just a few minutes behind me or in front of me, but I'm not aware of that because of the curvy trail and thick forest. This isolation means there are stretches of time when I have only my thoughts to walk with me through the day.
If ever there was a morning with a bluebird sky, today was it. The sky was as bright and cloudless as any I've seen on this hike. This was markedly different weather than the last couple mornings.
I had never been to Laurel Fork Gorge before. I had only read about it. That was enough to make today another day that I greatly anticipated. Nevertheless, I wasn't in a mood to rush into this day.
"You can never have too much of a good thing" is an expression people like to say. It's debatable if that's ever really true, but I'm here to tell you assuredly it's possible to have too much of at least one good thing. I am referring to water. There's no doubt water is a good -- even essential -- thing for hikers, but by the end of the day today I had much more of it than I wanted.
I knew this was going to be a big day. I just didn't know how big. For starters, I would be hiking one of my favorite sections of the Appalachian Trail. Assuming I could complete the whole section today, I would be crossing several beautiful balds with grand views. Two of them, Little Hump and Big Hump, are two of the tallest balds in the Southeast. What I didn't know about today was if I had it in me to get over those mountains and down to the highway, where Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast and Hiker's Hostel is located. Getting there would mean I'd be hiking just over 18 strenuous miles in one day. Though I've done that kind of mileage before, I've never done it with so many big climbs.
Today was my 30th day on the trail, if you omit the eight days I left the trail to attend a conference. It's too much to say I've become a "lean, mean, hiking machine" in that time, but at least I've gained experience and confidence.
Day 29, Curley Maple Gap Shelter to Cherry Gap Shelter
I see you got your list out, say your piece and get out
At the end of my sixth day on the trail I was given some advice by trail angel Miss Janet. "Throw away your spreadsheet," she said. She thought I was too focused on miles. My drive to stick to a schedule, she feared, would burn me out or wear me down. It was wise advice and I tried to follow it. For a few days.
After hiking nearly 350 miles, I still had a long way to go, but I already had a reason to be proud. I had walked farther than many people who attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It's said that 25 percent of northbound hikers quit before making it through Georgia, though it's difficult to find facts to back up that claim. Still, we know from statistics published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that fewer than 50 percent make it to Damascus, Va. and only about 25 percent reach Mt. Katahdin. I make this point not to pat myself on the back, but to show how easy it is to fail at what I'm attempting.
There are no two words more likely to get a hiker's attention than the words "trail magic". Just the possibility of free food on the trail can lift spirits and restore energy. A wonderful spread of trail magic food gave me a big boost yesterday after I had been feeling sorry for myself. Today I returned to the trail at Sam's Gap, and as luck would have it, there was another trail magic spread of food. I could get used to this.