Curiosity Kills the Cat

March 29, 2018

Destination: Campsite at mile 467 Today's Miles: 26

Start Location: Campsite at mile 441 Trip Miles: 467

AT Barn, passing through a pasture on the trail near Shady Valley, TN.
The peace and quiet of my camping spot allowed me to “sleep in.” I didn’t wake up until 7:30 or so, when it was light out, with the exception of needing to exit my tent briefly at 5 to empty my tiny bladder.

I woke to little birds singing their morning greetings. That is one of my favorite things about sleeping outside. 

The air was cool and crisp, but not cold. It felt like it was about 50 degrees. I tidied up my gear inside my tent, and then set about taping my feet up for the day. I had left the tape off of my blisters overnight to let them drain and breathe. I put two layers of Leuko tape over both of them, and then affixed moleskin on top of that for extra padding. Leuko tape is awesome stuff and stays put, but it is thin and so sometimes, depending on where the hotspot is, I ass moleskin for extra abrasion protection. At this point, the blister on my left heel was drained and wrapped, but a little raw, and the one in y right heel was tiny so I did not drain it, I just wrapped it. Yesterday I had felt that one getting hot and wished I had stopped immediately to deal with it. I thought another quarter mile wouldn’t make a difference, but it was enough to form that tiny blister. I will also note that with the other blister, I didn’t really feel a hotspot until it was too late. Maybe I was just so focused on hiking; it’s hard for me to say. 

I exited my mobile comfort inn and got my stove set up to boil water while I broke down my tent.  Before I could even start on my tent, a hiker appeared. It was one of the German brothers O had met the day before. I didn’t know his name. He waved and said hello as he flew by. Not too long after that as I sipped on my morning coffee, I heard someone coming up on the trail. It was Starbucks. He said they ended up tenting next to Vandeventer Shelter, and he kept on trekking. Watching Starbucks hike reminds me of the pictures of Yeti with that long, split stride. Starbucks is quite tall - maybe 6’5” - and each stride that he takes just looks massive to me. I think his stride is the entire length of my body. It’s pretty impressive. I continue sipping my coffee and start to put away my camp kitchen. I ate oatmeal, pop tarts, and a little peanut butter. Shortly after that while I putting everything in its place in my bag, Pritch sauntered up. He was stopping to get water. I hadn’t gotten a good look in the dark the night before, but the spring at this campsite was quite good. Pritch said they planned to hike to Abingdon Gap shelter, the last shelter before Damascus and about 10 miles out from the town. My plan was to at least make it there, but I really wanted to hike within a few miles of Damascus and camp. I wanted Friday morning to be easy so that I could have a nero, and then a zero, before heading out. Oh Hungry Cat, you’re still trying to make your own plans  and push and push instead of listening to the trail! Silly cat - you know something is coming when you do that! Something was coming.... As the saying goes, curiosity kills the cat. For this cat it’s more like stubborn determination!

Choo Choo showed up to get water as Pritch was heading out. I chatted with him about my plans and he headed out just as the other German kid showed up. I brushed my teeth and that kid headed on. I got my pack all situated and set, and then started hiking. I tend to be kind of slow getting out of camp in the mornings. I don’t like to rush, and I really like making sure my pack is set up for the day and I haven’t forgotten anything, so I tend to go through the same routine. 

Not too long after I ran into German kid #2. I learned that his name is Finn and his fast friend (German kid #1) is actually his brother, Izzy. I continue to be impressed with the number of Germans I am meeting in the trail, as well as their level of fitness. I believe Finn said they were from a town not too far from Hamburg, which is way up north near Denmark. I have been to Germany before, but to Munich and the Bavaria region down south. Thinking about this made my mind wander, planning a future trip to Germany with Gillian.

I passed Finn and hiked on. Today was going to be a lot of ridge line heading towards the Tennessee-Virginia border. I passed Turkeypen Gap and a small gap clearing with power lines. I cruised by Iron Mountain Shelter and dropped in elevation a bit to a series of footbridges over a kind of soggy area. I wouldn’t call it a bog, but there is definitely a reason that trail caretakers out the footbridges there as it looked like it could really flood out. I enjoyed hopping from one to the next. The AT footbridges have a beautiful woodland aesthetic all to themselves that I really love. 

I soon passed Pritch and Choo Choo. When I passed Pritch, I saw a bright orange wrapper on the ground up ahead in front of me behind a small log pile. I went over to pick it up. It was a KitKat wrapper. Delicious! Alas, no KitKat was inside. I grabbed it and kept walking. After about 30 seconds I heard Pritch calling my name. “Hungry Cat! Hey Hungry Cat! You’re going the wrong way!” I looked down and it seemed like I was on the trail. I didn’t see a white blaze ahead, but they can be sparse sometimes. I yelled back “are you sure?” I didn’t want to unnecessary walk backwards. Pritch’s answer was classic: “well, you stepped over a whole pile of logs designed to warn people that the path you’re on is not the trail, and there are white blazes this way.” It was funny and I was so glad he was behind me to catch me before I went too far. I guess in just focusing on grabbing the candy wrapper I didn’t pay attention. If Pritch didn’t catch me, I might have had a much longer day. Maybe there was something to this Guthook app after all I thought.... This wouldn’t be the last time today that I would contemplate purchasing Guthook. 

I hiked on and crossed a road, and the trail passed through a gate into a beautiful farm pasture. This was the outskirts of Shady Valley, TN. The sun was shining and it was just gorgeous how the trail meandered up through the pasture, past an old classic truck and a wooden barn with the AT symbol painted on it. My spirits were high and I took some photos of the barn and views of Shady Valley in the distance over the rolling hills. I saw a person sitting on a bench in the distance up ahead. It took me a while to get to him as I kept stopping to look and take pictures. When I got to the bench I met Mark. I believe he said he was from Michigan. He was driving south to visit someone and stopped to hike up from the road and take in the incredible view. The panorama of Shady Valley and the surrounding mountains from the bench was breathtaking, so Mark pretty much had the best seat in the house. He said it was the first time he had set foot on the AT. I felt really lucky to bump into him st the moment he was getting such an awesome first impression of the trail via the Shady Valley microcosm. 

After a bit I came to a small but lively spring. I needed water and there was a campsite ring nearby with a rock that actually looked like a chair, so this seemed like a perfect place to take a break for lunch. I sat down in my chair rock and pulled off my boots, socks, and sock liners. Everything seemed as ok as it could be on the blister front. I let my feet and socks air out in the sun as I ate a tuna packet. Pritch showed up and grabbed some water, and then Starbucks appeared. What?! I was confused because I never passed him. I told him that I thought he was way ahead of me. He said that he had gone down the same wrong trail as I, apparently for a while before he thought to check Guthook. While he was farther down that trail Pritch was setting me back on course. He stopped to grab some water as I changed out my sock liners for fresh ones and put my socks and boots back on. He and Pritch discussed calling around later to try and reserve a room in Damascus, and then they headed out. I filtered some water and went to grab my pack as Choo Choo rolled in. He stopped to get water and I pushed on, feeling rested and satisfied from my lunch break.

I kept on hiking and, despite the relatively forgiving elevation profile, I could feel the miles start to wear on me as I got to McQueen’s Knob. There was what looked to be a shelter there and I thought maybe I was at Abingdon Shelter, but it was quite small and really run down. I picked up my pace as it was late afternoon and I knew I had 7 miles to go after I reached the shelter to get to a campsite approximately 2 miles outside of Damascus. That was my goal - a long day and then an easy Friday morning stroll in Damascus. My wife Gillian was coming into Damascus to spend the weekend with me and I figured I could get in early, eat some breakfast, and maybe do some chores and clean up a bit before she got in. I was motivated and excited to get there!

I kept on trucking and after a while reached the actual Abingdon Shelter. My heart sank a little as I was not as far along as I expected. I knew the campsite I was targeting did not have water close by. My AWOL guide said the water was about .4 miles away from the campsite. I decided to chug some water here to hydrate and then filter more. The shelter was tarped off, so I walked around inside and an older gentleman was lying there in his sleeping bag. He sat up with wide eyes. He had a long white beard and was quite thin. He seemed rather peppy and said that I hadn’t disturbed him, he was just kind of resting there waiting for dark. He introduced himself as Loner Boner. I backed up a few inches and he must have noticed because he quickly added that his actual name was Lee Boner. What a trail name! Yikes.... Anyway, he was very friendly and said he was 77 years old and thru hiking. He knew he couldn’t make it to Damascus that day so he decided to pull over at the shelter as the forecast called for rain that night. He told me the water source there was good, but that it was 300 yards down a hill. That it was.... I hustled down and filtered two liters. There were a surprising amount of flies dancing around my face while I did this. I also bagged another liter of dirty water to filter later at camp. That would give me plenty to do some chores,like brush my teeth and give my filter a serious back flushing that it needed. It would mean a bit of extra weight, but it was only 7-8 miles more right?

As I got close the top of the hill by the shelter I saw Choo Choo headed my way to get water. He told me he was going to stop there for the day and hike 10 miles into Damascus in the morning. I quickly ate a snack and pressed on. At this point I might have noticed some pain in my feet, more specifically my blister areas, but I really don’t remember. I was hell bent on getting to that campsite, so I kept going at a rapid clip. It was approaching 7:15 or 7:30 when I suddenly felt a hot stinging pain in my right heel. All of a sudden it felt like loose skin was dragging back and forth. The sting was powerful and I started to hobble. I really could not tell what was going on and I wanted to just keep walking. I had to be close to the TN-VA border, and then the campsite was 0.6 miles from the border. I tried to push on, but it burned so badly that I had to stop and check the damage. Meanwhile, the wind had picked up and I could see some dark clouds rolling in. It was supposed to rain all night with gusty winds, and all I knew was that the forecast said it would start “after 8.” It was 7:30.... I pulled my right boot off and the tape and moleskin I had put in place was still there; however, I could see that the blister it once covered had expanded user it, and mist have just burst as the tape was wet with fluid. I guess the good news was that it was still covered. The bad news was that I had a few miles left to go. There was nothing much I could do then but put y boot back on and keep going. I favored my heels (my left one was beginning to get uncomfortable now as well),which meant I was walking unnaturally and making my feet sore. I finally got to the border sign, which picked up my spirits. I took a quick picture straddling the states, and carried on. My AWOL guide said I only had 0.6 more miles, and there was water 0.4 miles after the campsite. I didn’t need the water as I was carrying it, but it was good to know anyway. I walked and walked and walked. I stopped to get out my headlamp. Something felt wrong. I must’ve gone half a mile by now! Right??? I asked myself this question. It was getting dark and I could feel the storms closing in. I took off my bag again and re-consulted the guide. 0.6 miles. Maybe I was just tired? It must be around the bend any minute now. I tiredly dragged my pack back on, turned on my headlamp and walked into the growing darkness.

I started to feel like I was in a dream. I felt a little like Alice through her looking glass, finding myself in some weird netherworld. It was like my own Stranger Things upside down, only without the terror of a demogorgon. I plodded on and still nothing. I started to think maybe I had missed it. I wished I had Guthook so I could at least see how close I was. This was it - the final straw. I vowed to get Guthook if WiFi in Damascus was good. It was a small price to pay for more assurance in navigation. I kept going, shining my light figuring that if I had accidentally passed the campsite I would see the blue blaze water trail 0.4 miles later. Still nothing! The wind was picking up and it felt like the sky could open up at any moment. I had to pee. Dang bladder!!! Gah! I pulled over and winced as my heel reminded me of its need for attention. A crosswind whipped in, redirecting my urine  stream onto my boot. Awesome....

I kept picking my way forward on the trail, and came to a juncture where the trail seemed to split in two with no blazes. Oh boy.... I picked the left fork as it seemed to be more likely correct. I am not sure why I felt that way, but without Guthook I could not check. I drove myself forward, akin to pushing a shopping cart with a wonky wheel. Finally I saw a blaze - thank goodness! And then I saw a clearing up ahead. The campsite! I had arrived, though how far I walked I had no idea, other than it felt closer to two miles than 0.4. 

I texted Gillian that I was there since I had a cell signal and immediately rushed to set up camp in the dark. The wind played games with me as I set up my tent. No rain yet! I threw my pack inside it and looked around for a tree to hang my food bag. The only option I saw was directly over the trail. Was that even kosher? I guess if it is high enough, it doesn’t matter, and I would be up in the morning anyway to take it down. I decided I’d better make dinner first before it started raining. I boiled water and set my Knorr rice side cooking in my cook pouch. I made Cajun dirty rice, which I love. I filtered the rest of my water while the rice finished cooking, and then started shoveling rice in my mouth. Plop, plop, Plop, PLOP! The rain was starting. It had a slow and growing cadence to it, so I knew I didn’t have long. Unlike with breakfast, I never eat dinner in or too close to my tent. I tried to eat faster.  The rain came harder. I finished the rice side and scrambled to get my cook gear together and in my tent. I grabbed my toothbrush and hurriedly scrubbed my fuzzy whites. The heavens opened up. I dove back into my tent with my food bag. The rain pelted the outside of my tent, the wind steering it left, right, then up and down. It was like sitting in my car going through a car wash. I needed to hang my food bag, but I didn’t want to get soaked. I was sitting half in my tent, with my legs sticking out in the vestibule as I still had my boots on. I decided to work on my feet. I slipped my boots off and brought my legs inside the tent. A small beetle had made his way into the tent and was running around confused. “I know how you feel” I thought. I picked him up and placed him outside. Find your campsite man! I bet beetles don’t get blisters. I pulled off my socks to get a closer look.

I removed the tape on my right foot and it came off painfully, namely because the blister had enlarged and burst underneath it, so the tape was now pulling at that loose skin. The skin underneath it was red and raw. The area was pretty large - not good. I inspected the left foot and, despite  lancing that blister and taping it, it had semi reformed and enlarged. This was going to be fun. I worked on draining what was left in both. Then came my moment of joy. I knew I had to sanitize them. I grabbed a sanitizing wipe from my first aid kit. I wished I had something to bite down on. Maybe not a stick as that would be gross. Maybe a big handful of red vines, so that as I bit down in pain I would get a candy surprise. I think the medical field should consider this strategy. Anyway, I grabbed the towelette wipe and did what I had to do. There is a sick part of me that kind of enjoys the excitement of The Lapse. What is The Lapse you ask? The Lapse is the short, and never certain, time period from when you press an antiseptic onto a wound until you actually feel that searing, burning pain. That’s The Lapse. It’s a little thrilling, but I definitely do not enjoy the feeling after. I winced as I felt the burn, knowing only that I had to do it again on the other side.

When that was done, I put bandaids over them so that they could breathe a little overnight. I popped two Vitamin i, put away my kit and stripped down to my underwear. My feet throbbed, but I was tired and knew I would fall asleep. But wait - my food bag! I still had to hang that. It was pouring outside, and in a moment of controversial hiker-tired decision making, I decided to risk it. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in a high bear activity area, I was close to town, and maybe mice don’t like to chew through tents in the rain? I was so tired and beaten down that I decided just to seal it all up as best I could and bury it in my pack, and then leave my filthy stinking hiking shirt in the outside of my pack to maybe mask any potentially tasty smells. I knew this was a risk, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of getting soaked hanging that bag in the dark. I woke a few times during the night and talked loudly, convinced that  raccoons were chewing through my tent for the KitKat wrapper I had picked up that day. My sleep was restless, but I was close to Damascus, and therefore close to my love, whom I had not seen in over two fortnights. As a quick aside, I’m aware that fortnight is a rather polarizing word. Some love it for its classic flavor, and others hate it claiming it is outdated and pretentious. I love it because both schools are correct! 

Today was long and the trail had to put me in my place. As I fell asleep I realized I was pushing too hard; I had focused on setting up the schedule I wanted, rather than what the trail would supply for me. I could have stopped at Abingdon, but I did not. Was Loner Boner a trail test that I failed? Probably. I probably flunked the Loner Boner trail quiz, whistling away with my will the size of a large, floating zeppelin, pulling me along without observation or conscience. I was grateful to be able to see this though. At least I am a person who can recognize a lesson now, even if I’m late to the party. I was grateful to be in my tent with the storm safely outside, dry and warm. More than anything, I was excited beyond belief to see my wife tomorrow. I would actually see her! The whole situation seemed surreal. I was actually thru hiking. I was almost to Damascus. I would see Gillian in less than 24 hours. Tomorrow was going to be huge in multiple ways.

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