AT Day 20 – Hitting My Stride
Little Laurel Shelter to High Rock Shoulder
That’s A Lot Of Tents Camp to Just In Time Flat Spot Camp
AT miles: 24.4
Total miles: 327.1
Elevation change: 6214ft gain, 5896ft loss
Coming off of a zero day, and feeling as strong as I did yesterday, I set no specific mileage goal this morning. I decided to hike hard, listen to my body, and maybe see just how far I could go before dark. That was always my approach after several weeks on the PCT once I had earned my trail legs, and I was curious to see how my legs would respond to that strategy not three weeks into the AT. On the other side of that long day now, all I can say is that I’m impressed by how well my body has adapted in a relatively short period of time. Today was a big test, and I think I passed (let’s see how I feel tomorrow). It certainly helped that the scenery and trail was some of my favorite so far. A great day all around.
I wasn’t sure what to expect weather-wise, and when I started hiking at 7:30am, I didn’t exactly feel optimistic. I was grateful that the sky was not actively raining, but it was 30-ish degrees and foggy. However, I warmed up quickly on the gradual ascent out of camp and was soon hiking without a jacket. My fingers were the last part of me to warm up as I plodded uphill through hazy oak and rhododendron thickets.
As I approached the top of whatever I was nearing the top of, the world brightened dramatically. The cloud was thinning, and I was maybe close to breaking through. For some reason, I had trouble remembering just how bright the sun can be. Every time I thought it had reached full brilliance, my shadow darkened another shade and my eyes squinted tighter. Rime ice on the surrounding trees twinkled and glowed with a delicate brilliance all around me. Beams of sunshine penetrated through the bare trees, illuminating narrow strips of swirling mist.
I took a side trail to a viewpoint on a whim. I didn’t expect to see anything, but you never know. The timing was nothing short of perfect. I perched on a rocky edge and was just able to make out a dark summit to the west. The cloud dropped just a little bit more, leaving me standing on an island in a sea of cloud in brilliant sunshine. I watched in wonder as the fog billowed and flowed across the ridge like a slowly flowing river. More glinting ice-forest emerged from the foam, before disappearing again under the stubborn cloud. This was a scene of my dreams. How could this timing be so perfect? I gave my thanks to everything that made the moment possible.
Back down from the viewpoint, I was back in the fog, but it was thinning fast. Ice pellets cascaded from the trees as the day began to thaw. A couple chunks lodged between my shoulder blades, burning pinpricks on my sweaty back. The much-anticipated ridgeline of Big Firescald Bald was just ahead, and again, the timing was perfect as I clambered up and along the rocky fin. Instead of an island, this time I was on the back of a giant sea dragon, arching from the foaming surf. I warmed in the sun while watching the clouds thin, then vanish, revealing deep valleys and distant peaks, all blueish in the bright, humid air. North Carolina cleared completely while Tennessee stayed totally socked in.
It was hard to keep moving, but I had big dreams, so I finished up the glorious ridge and boogied on. The trail was some of the mellowest of the AT so far, riding through meadows on an almost flat ridge. Either that or a gradual downhill. I stretched out my legs, kind of jogging the downs, and made great time. I felt strong and fast, cruising except for a few stops for views and to chuckle to myself about the peak named Big Butt.
I stopped to dry out my damp gear and eat lunch in a wide clearing near a Civil War gravesite. It was well kept, and the sad story of the Sheltons was a sobering reminder of the brutal history of this area. One of the buried was just 13 years old when he was killed by Confederate soldiers for being a Union scout. Just 160 years ago, that era seemed at once far in the past and too close for comfort. I considered this while munching and watching the changing light flicker in the forest. The quilted clouds above moved quickly on a high wind. The pillowed tufts brought a winter gloom, the blue veins in between the bright hope of spring.
The easy trail continued all the way to the pavement at Devil’s Fork Gap, where I met Marcela the trail angel, who directed me to a chair and loaded me up with some snacks. Her food and conversation were a treat, but it was her parting hug that I was most grateful for. Afterward, as I walked through a small pasture, reminding me of hiking through the Alps and all the good times there, I tried to recall my last hug. It was before trail, probably back in California at the San Francisco airport curbside dropoff almost a month ago. Too long. Hug your people, people.
A ceiling of clouds blew in and darkened as I made the big climb of the day up Divide Mountain. This old part of the AT hadn’t been buffed out with switchbacks yet, so I huffed and puffed up 1500ft of relentless trail. I pushed hard, fighting like mad, determined not to get caught out by whatever rain might come. At this point, I was targeting Hog’s Back Shelter in a few miles to shelter me from the storm that looked increasingly inevitable.
I swung around the ridge, hiking as fast as I could. I was actually surprised by my pace and endurance. This was an early-in-the-day kind of feeling, or like I had guzzled a pint of coffee. Maybe it was just the desire to not get rained on. Whatever it was, I flew.
However, like yesterday, I was amazed and flabbergasted to find the shelter packed tight. Who the heck were all these people? I didn’t see any hikers during the day, so where were they coming from? I sighed, but it was alright. I still had 40 minutes until my hard stopping time of 6:30 p.m. The low-density rain had stopped as well. I filled up my bottles at the nearby stream and left the cozy people to their cozy shelter and cozy campfire.
I made it up and over the next lump, then down quite a ways along an old barbed wire fence. Keeping an eye out for the first flat spot, I was again amazed to see yet another tent. This time I made acquaintance with Lifeguard, who had a sound theory that the woods were full of people enjoying spring break. That was a good theory indeed, and one that I’m keeping with me.
I finally found a place to camp at the next small flat. In the fading light and rising rain, I had just pulled off the timing, not five minutes too soon. Now I was cozy as the rain thickened along with my beans in their jar. I was tired and ready to call it a day. It was a good one, a great one really, and it was time for a rest. Magnificence had not been in short supply today, and considering all of it was too much for my brain to scroll through. However, those first glorious moments of sunshine on Blackcliffs were undoubtedly my favorite of the day, when everything changed and I knew that it was going to be an incredible ride for as long as I could handle it.
This post was originally published on my blog hikefordays.com. Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.
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