The Full Monty and an AT State of Mind

March 28, 2018

Destination: Campsite at mile 441 Today's Miles: 25.60

Start Location: Stealth Campsite at AT mile 415.4 Trip Miles: 441

Old shack on the trail near Hampton, TN
Today was a big day - a lot of plugging along. We all bustled about camp in the morning.

The campsite was in a large field, so there was lots of room. Pritch and Starbucks left camp first, then me, and then Durwood and Nate (note that I was spelling Durwood’s name with an “e” before, but found out that was not correct). I started the morning in pants and my long sleeve smart wool. I started climbing the first ridge and found a good cell signal, so I stopped to give my wife a ring and wish her a happy birthday. I was also getting very excited as she is coming to meet me in Damascus! We chatted for a bit and then I continued to hike.

It wasn’t too long before I started getting hot. This is a thing for me on the trail. In the mornings when it is chilly I know that I will need to wear cooler clothes for hiking because I will get warm quickly, but often I just can’t deal with being cold while I make breakfast and pack up camp. Usually it just means I have to stop and remove a jacket. Today it meant the full monty. I was hiking in my long sleeve smart wool and pants. A lot of times I will just zip down the quarter zip and roll up the sleeves of my shirt, and then for the pants I can roll them up and snap them in place like capris. That wasn’t going to cut it today. I was already starting to sweat and I could tell it was going to be a hot one, so I decided to pull over to change. Fortunately, I found a rock outcrop with a beautiful view to do so! I stripped off all of my clothes until I was just standing naked on the rock. I’m not really sure why I did that, rather than one layer at a time, but I did. It felt kind of exhilarating just standing  there on a cliff looking at the mountains with it all hanging out! But it got chilly I put on my shorts and t-shirt and got back on the trail. I think there is something about nudity in nature that just feels good (assuming I’m not getting eaten alive by flies and mosquitos). My only other experience with this was in Greece. Gillian and I went to Santorini for our honeymoon and there was a clothing optional beach. We were the only ones there (at first), and so I went skinny dipping for the first time in my life. I’m not normally one to do that kind of thing, but it somehow felt awesome! It was almost like some kind of final surrender, an acceptance of my primal self and an acknowledgement to the other matter of the earth that I am matter too, that somehow we are one. And then another guy showed up and took his pants off nearby and the feeling faded, so I got dressed and we left. I did have a moment though!

I hiked on, climbing up the trail as it skirted White Rocks Mountain, and then descended into a rocky, lush valley. Along the way I spotted little tiny red flowers on some lichen and took a picture. I am emailing these to my Mom now, who has a book on AT flora and is my official Sherlock Holmes of plant and flower identification. She said this one is called British Soldier lichen (named after the red coats) and the flowers used to be used for dyes. I took a picture for my gallery. When I arrived in the valley, I stopped to filter some water. I turned around and there stood Durwood. He startled me, namely because I couldn’t hear him coming over the sound of the babbling stream. We chatted for a minute. Durwood always says he’s “good for one trail tantrum a day.” It makes me chuckle and reminds me of my time tenting by the poop house at Carver’s Gap, jumping on my boots in that dirty bathroom. Durwood moved on, but I caught up with him later at Laurel Falls, which was a breathtaking waterfall. It looked to be about 50 feet tall, and the mist from its forcefully plunging volume left a damp coolness in the air around us, even as the trail skirted the falls and headed away from it. The climb down had been technical and rocky - slow going for fear of injury - so it was nice to get some trail air conditioning from the falls. The trail then funneled into a shelf-like passage that was seemingly carved between the Laurel river and the face of a cliff. I tried to get an action shot of Durwood coming around the corner of the cliff, but pictures just can’t capture these scenes. I think about this a lot. I take a plethora of photos, many more than I upload to this journal, and I love to look at them and I’m sure I will look back at them fondly. My mind’s eye is always better though. The memories of what I saw encapsulate how I felt at the time. My photos help to elicit those feelings. I’m sure that’s why I often like my own photos more than other people do. They can prompt those memories and feelings in me, but they cannot store the same for others.

We walked on at separate paces. I passed by an old barn or shack and then crossed over Dennis Cove Road. There has been quite a bit of discussion about the Kincora hostel off of that road. It’s a hostel stay by way of donation, but apparently it is in really bad shape. Hiker iiuii stayed there and said it was overrun with cats, smelled of cat urine and generally it was pretty filthy and worn down. It sounded like maybe the proprietor just needed a little help, or maybe the donation model wasn’t working out. I was glad that I did not plan to stay there!

I passed a side trail into Hampton, TN. It’s only one mile long, but I didn’t want or need to go into a town so I pushed on. I knew Nate was planning to run into town for some food. It was a good idea actually, but not in my plan. The trail was beckoning me to stay, so I started the 1700 foot climb up to Pond Flats, and just as quickly started the same descent on the other side, down to a bit of road walking over to Watauga Lake. 

The trail skirted the lake, which was quite pretty. This area had lots of bear activity warnings, so many so that it was a little disturbing. I half expected that a bear might suddenly walk out from behind a tree, dressed in a tux with a monocle and say in a cockney accent: “by Jove it’s getting hot I say, isn’t it? Have you another one of those snickers biscuits for me good fellow?” I don’t know why, but in my head the bears there are British gentlemen (you’re welcome Shane Carlson). The Watauga Shelter was even closed due to bear activity and Pritch would later tell me that some of the signs even restricted hiking to authorized personnel and thru hikers only - the two types of people that taste best to bears I guess. I walked on and looked for bears. Nada!

Today’s song on my mind was Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” so I sang that aloud as I walked alone around the lake. It’s a little ironic because the song is basically about how he’s ok with taking little vacations, but in the end he needs the regular beat of the city. He says “been high in the Rockies, under the evergreens. I know what I’m needing and I don’t want to waste more time; I’m in a New York State of Mind.” I could relate in that I have definitely been to “vacation only” places, where it’s fine for a week but not forever. I couldn’t relate out here though. I think my song would be the opposite. I’m in an Appalachia state of mind! Is probably have to explain that a bit though.... later in the refrain of his song though, Billy says “ it comes down to reality, and it’s fine with me cause I’ve let it slide.” I wondered about that. Was he saying that he accepted that it was ok to like “home” more than perhaps more exotic places, and therefore want to go back? Or was he saying that there were other circumstances there that he was doing nothing to change, and so he just accepted that he was “stuck.” It wasn’t clear. I thought to myself that I hoped that I would not let things slide, that I would not settle as long as I could make a change, but that I would be able to accept the realities that I cannot change and coexist peacefully with them. Making a change that I could make was my first step on this journey, even before I took one step on the actual trail. I sang and walked.

The trail finally curved around and crossed over Watauga dam. I saw a hiker in the distance and took a picture of him or her crossing over the dam. After about 30 minutes I caught up to said hiker - it was a guy named Choo Choo. In my not at all awkward style I said something like “I got a pretty cool picture of you crossing over the dam while you weren’t looking, do you want it?” Classic Hungry Cat. Choo Choo was cool though and didn’t seem phased. He is hiking alone too - we don’t often get photos of ourselves that are natural, in the moment shots. I texted it to him. 

I passed Choo Choo and continued on, finally catching up to Pritch and Starbucks. They were talking with a lady named Caroline who was a local out day hiking with her cute chocolate lab Kona. Pritch handed me an orange from his pack. Caroline had just given them oranges and he had an extra. Awesome! I love refreshing citrus trail magic! I thanked  Caroline (and Pritch for sharing). Caroline and I had a brief conversation about the merits of gaiters and then I hiked on.

Originally I had planned to stop at Vandeventer Shelter, but when we arrived there really weren’t any great tenting spots. I didn’t really feel like sleeping in the shelter, so I decided to push on. The next listed campsite was 3.8 miles away. I was convinced there would be a good stealth spot before that, so I pushed on planning to find something a mile or two down the ridge.

3.8 miles later, I arrived at the campsite. Once again, the trail reminds me that my will holds no weight in the real world. I passed a few pseudo stealth sites, but they were quite exposed to the windy gusts of the ridge line, so I continued until I found the charted site just as it was getting dark. I had the place all to myself, and while I love the camaraderie of other hikers, sometimes it’s just nice to be alone in the woods. My will had pushed the day longer than expected, and with the warmer temperatures, I had gotten blisters on both heels. The one on my left heel was bigger. I lanced and drained it. I would tape it in the morning. The blister on my right heel was tiny. I decided to let that one stay intact. This decision would come back to haunt me.

I hung my food bag (successfully!), ate my dinner in the dark by way of my headlamp, got in bag and fell fast asleep to the sound of wind in the trees. I was grateful for the ridge line views, the trail tour around Watauga Lake, good trail talk with other hikers,  Caroline’s and Kona’s thoughtful trail magic, and the solitude and peacefulness of my woodland motel room for the night. I am also continually grateful to all of you who sign my guest book. I know I don’t address all of the comments, but I read and appreciate them all. I think a lot of folks believe that walking the AT is a solitary experience. That has not been my experience at all! Sure, I walk alone for most of my time, but in many ways I am not walking north; I am being carried north by an army of support, trail magic, and my higher trail power who puts me where I need to be. If you’re in the guest book, or even reading this, you’re part of that army, and I’m grateful for that.  Now if you can just help me walk without more blisters ... ;-)

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