April 7, 2018
Destination: Saunders Shelter Today's Miles: 9.60
Start Location: Damascus, VA Trip Miles: 479.60
I woke briefly very early in the morning when it was still dark and could see Traveler’s silhouette, headlamp on, packing up his things. I quickly fell back asleep and didn’t wake until about 8:15.
Black Dog (the kid who came into the bunkhouse yesterday) was awake; Boots appeared to still be asleep. Travelers things were gone, minus an apple that he had either forgotten or left. I grabbed a shower and by the time I finished the audible rain had ceased. I went inside the house and saw Paul. He told me that the bunkhouse was already booked for the night, so my only option was to pay more than double for a room in the house, split one room that had twin beds with another hiker, or move to another hostel. I decided to go have breakfast and weigh my options, including just hiking out despite the oncoming inclement weather. After all, it is easier to think clearly with coffee and a cinnamon bun!
The waitress at Mojo’s greeted me on arrival: “Hi Kevin - you’re still here?” Yeah...... I ordered a bagel and egg sandwich, coffee and a cinnamon bun. After I polished that off I ordered my usual second bun. So good! I decided that I needed a sign. It was hard to say how ugly the weather would get. The rain was supposed to subside until 2pm, after which it was supposed to snow, and then get into the low to mid 20s overnight. My heels felt about as good as they would get. I could hike a shorter day and camp and wait out the storm, or just stay one more night in comfort and head out tomorrow. I would go back to the hostel and see if some plan for a room at the inn would materialize. Maybe Black Dog would want to share a room. On my way back, Smokey the cat cane running towards me, his porky belly shaking as he trotted along. He rubbed against my legs and then jumped up on my leg as if to ask me not to go. Was this my sign, or was Smokey just being a cat?
Back at the inn, Black Dog was nowhere to be found. Then, Paul told me that some hikers coming in had booked everything but the Airstream trailer out back. The decision was made for me, and that was all the sign I needed. I started to get my feet ready. I felt like it was hard to get back on the trail, mentally hard that is. When I take too long a break in towns I can psych myself out a little if weather conditions will be fierce. The Smokies and my two days off at Fontana were a good example of this. In the case of Damascus, I was also just really nervous about my heels. Had they healed enough? I thought so, but what if I was wrong? I would also be hiking with brand new shoes - what if they aggravated my feet? These are questions that plagued my mind at breakfast, and that is why o felt like i needed to turn the decision over to something bigger than me and just let things play out.
I put three coats of new skin on both blister areas, followed by two layers of Leuko tape and then moleskin. I slipped on my injiji sock liners and then my darn tough socks. I got my pack ready to go. My enormous food bag was crowning out of the top opening of my pack. Lastly, I grabbed the apple that Traveler had left (thanks mate!) and headed out.
I was actually leaving Damascus!! The trail follows Laurel Ave. past Mojo’s. I strongly considered grabbing some kind of cake to go, but I needed to focus. My game today was slow and steady. I did not want to hike fast or hurry, and. I still had time to make it 6 miles or so before the winter weather kicked in. There were going to be quite a few campsites on my route, so I figured I would just hike and check in at each one to see how my heels were doing. That’s exactly what I did.
The trail was relatively easy and forgiving. My shoes felt good, my heels felt ok, and there was a light mist and dribble in the air, but no real rain. It was excellent hiking weather. The trail ran along beside the Virginia Creeper Trail in several places, most notably on one long stretch along a beautiful stream. I saw a guy fly fishing in the stream 350 yards below from my vantage point on the ridge. I finally got to a campsite about 6.5 miles out and assessed whether I wanted to stop. The shelter was only another 3 miles away. My heels and feet felt ok. The weather was still behaving and it was early in the afternoon. I decided to keep walking. The switchbacks were gentle and in about an hour I saw the sign for Saunders Shelter. I noticed that there was a trail in a quarter mile on the south side that then went another quarter mile on the north side before reconnecting to the AT. I didn’t want to miss the quarter mile stretch of the AT by only waking the side trail in and out of the shelter, and I didn’t fancy doubling back on the shelter trail tomorrow to get to the southernmost point where it sprouts off of the AT. I decided to walk north on the AT until I saw the northern end of the shelter trail and enter it there. That way I could just retrace my steps in the morning and not feel like I was going backwards South. I’m a white blazer, so missing that quarter mile section of the AT was not an option!!
When I got to the shelter it was full, pregnant with a Boy Scout troop from Kentucky. A few thru hikers that I recognized were tenting behind it. It was startling to sleet, so I hustled uphill a bit, found a decent tenting spot, and got set up. I went back down to the shelter picnic table to make dinner out of the snow. The Boy Scouts riddled me with questions about gear and mileage. It was fun and they were nice. They had a great fire going, despite the snow! I warmed my hands over it. I ate chicken teriyaki mountain house, courtesy of trail angels Maw and Paw Hungry Cat. It was quite good! After that I had some trail mix, and some freeze dried guacamole mix with chili cheese Fritos. It was a pretty amazing dinner and a good way to wean myself off of Mojo’s. Inside Out showed up at the shelter. I hadn’t seen her since Cherry Gap when she showed up without a tent at that shelter. She had her tent now, and it was a good thing because the shelter was full. I got a bit of water from a piped stream about 100 yards behind the shelter, and then went back to my tent to get warmer clothes on and hang my food bag. I shook and brushed some of the snow accumulation off my tent. It wasn’t supposed to snow that much tonight. I got inside my sleeping bag and took a look at my AT guide. I would likely do another 9 miles tomorrow and stop short of the ascent of Whitetop Mountain. The shelter at Whitetop was too far at 19 miles. The next shelter was too close. I would plan to camp in the 3500’ elevation range tomorrow, which would be warmer anyway than the 5000’+ of Whitetop Mountain.
I’m so, so, so grateful that my heels were ok today and that I didn’t have any foot drama. I’m thankful that I was able to feel that pushing out of Damascus was the right move today, and it was an extra bonus that the sleet and snow held off until I got to camp. It was a great day - Hungry Cat is back in action!