AT Day 29 – Climbing With A Full Load
Damascus, VA to Elk Garden
Million Pillow Daybed Camp to Barking Pearl Camp
AT miles: 23.8
Total miles: 503.1
Elevation change: 6306ft gain, 3894ft loss
Soooooo, Day 29. You might be thinking that after nearly one month of hiking all day, almost everyday, that this is getting easy for me. Let me tell you that this is not the case. No way. In my experience, thru-hiking never gets “easy”. Parts of it, however, do get “easier”. Hiking 18 miles, close to my maximum daily total at the start, is easier now, sure, but it’s still not easy. And as soon a the body adapts to accept more miles, or a faster pace, it’s asked to do more. Always more. “Oh, you can handle 18 miles, let’s do 20.” A few weeks later, I may be hiking further and faster, but I’m still working hard to do it. Physically, thru-hiking is hard. I wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t. At the end of the day, I’m tired. So while days are rarely easy (some are. I’m looking at you, Yesterday), they are usually hard, and today was a bit harder than most. But like I said, I wouldn’t be out here if it were easy, and the payoff was worth it, bigly.
Hollis’ alarm started buzzing at 6am. Last night, both of us had been optimistic about our convictions to get an early start on the day. However, from the comfort of bed, with sunrise over an hour away, it was easy to see that we must have been out of our minds. Being the reasonable people we were, we snoozed it until the sky began to brighten through the small upstairs window.
I was right on schedule when I stepped out onto the gravel road, pack on back, and ready to go. 8:30am, time to hike. But I was hungry and still in town, so I wandered over to Subway to see if I might get lucky. Not open. As I perused the isles at the gas station convenience store, I was slammed by the epiphany that I already had a backpack full of this crappy junk food. No need to get more here. Still hungry, I jumped across the quiet highway and crunched along the double-wide gravel path with Hollis drinking coffee next to me, hiking in his faux fur coat. When the trail turned off the bike path, leaving the rushing creek for the hills, I stopped to scarf a few handfuls of trail mix and crammed a packet of Pop Tarts in my pocket for later. I re-shouldered my pack and marched up the steep wooden, roadside steps. Back on the leaf litter, back on the trail.
Hollis faded behind me as I climbed and climbed. The day was cool and humid, with a cap of clouds hanging over the higher hills. I sweated up, then found a cruisy rythme as the trail leveled out. It dipped and turned around the classic rhododendron thickets and across numerous streams. My heavy pack groaned and squeaked, and I adjusted the straps to put most of the load on my hips. My shoulders were already getting tired.
I crossed a road, then cruised a little longer on the relatively level trail as it paralleled some water and the Virginia Creeper bike trail. I thought about how that trail led directly back to Food City in Damascus. It led straight to the dairy-free Ben & Jerry’s that I deeply regretted not consuming yesterday. I ate a Clif Bar instead, and kicked through some deep leaves.
I hiked with Machine for a few switchbacks, then was caught by SOS as I scrutinized my maps at the top of whatever it was that we had been switchbacking up. We shared the trail for a few miles, talking about previous hikes and his hammock camping setup. It sounded a little heavy, but super comfy. I knew that there was no way, however, that I would have the patience to set that up every night, no matter how good the sleep.
We stopped for lunch under some tall pine as the sun broke through and bathed the forest in bright light. SOS told me about his Phish-themed, custom food bag and his Phish obsession. I munched on BBQ Lays, trail mix and granola. When he slathered peanut butter on a tortilla and tacoed it, I was inspired to do that too. A good meal.
SOS got moving, leaving me to write and lounge a bit longer. Many minutes later, Stealth and his friend John walked on by. Then Machine a few minutes after them. By 2:45pm, I had been sitting for far too long, so I quickly packed up and got moving once again, ready to charge. At the next stream I filled my bottles and mixed in a cherry electrolyte packet, which would certainly increase my hiking speed and enjoyment.
I caught up with Twain, who had passed me when I filtered, and joined him for about a mile where the AT overlapped the bike path. We’d been hiking around one another for a few days now, so it was nice to actually meet the man. Good dude, fast walker. We crossed an old railway trestle bridge over the creek, then turned back onto foot trail into the rhododendron.
Twain waved me ahead when the trail started climbing again. I took the opportunity to hike as fast as I absolutely could, not to embarrass the guy, but because I needed to build a cushion of space large enough to allow me to pee without him catching up. After a few torturous minutes, sweat running into my eyes, I pulled over, glancing down the trail, satisfied by the absence of his orange pack. I chugged some of those oh-so-good electrolytes, then kept hiking at a more sustainable pace.
I found the other three dudes at the next shelter, considering their next step. With John fresh from city living, they needed to take it kind of easy. I let them discuss, and headed for the privy, not because I definitely needed it, just because it was there, and worth a shot. Bathroom entertainment was provided in the form of the timeless classic, The Lorax, written in sharpie on the wall. I chuckled to myself. Grickle grass, haha. Classic. I think I also figured out the meaning of “TL;DR”, which had confused me for years.
The next phase of the day involved a massive uphill push. When the others pointed that out, I didn’t think to much of it, and got going. Climbing up and down hills is all we do out here, after all. Well, let me tell you, dear readers, that this climb was the toughest for me of the entire AT so far. I’m not exactly sure why, but I was looking for every excuse to take a break. It started off in a pleasant pasture filled with dramatic light painting bright trees against dark clouds. That was spectacular, but quickly forgotten when I turned onto an epic single switchback up the flank of Whitetop Mountain.
The trail was rocky and relentless. My pack was heavy and unhelpful. The minutes ticked by and my legs started to lose their power. I urged myself forward with the promise of a water break every mile. After that, I kept checking my watch, which beeps at mile intervals, to see if it was still working. More than once, it seemed like there was no way I hadn’t yet traveled the distance. But nope, my watch was functioning properly, I was just gassed. The sun shone brightly through the building clouds. The breeze riffled the stunted trees. Through them, I could see that I was much higher than most other things. At least there was that.
The trail made a glorious turn and leveled off. Then it turned up again, but now the top was in sight. The last quarter mile wound through a recently burned grassy patch to Buzzard Rock, an ominous point of black rock that promised fine views. I breathed deeply the scent of ashes, and gave it all I had for the final push.
As you might have guessed, sitting down on top was my favorite moment of the day. The climb may have been devistating, but the payoff was a thousand times worth it. The dramatic clouds and abyss of hills before me was worth every drop of sweat now turning to ice in the breeze. I shuddered, grateful for the chill, feeling my heartbeat slacken. But then it got even better. I reached into my hip belt pocket and pulled out the best bar I’ve ever eaten. Heck, the chocolate cupcake flavor Luna bar may have been the best thing that I’ve eaten since starting the AT, town food included. The frosting, yes frosting, on top had a slight crispness, like the sugary coating on the best glazed donut. The depth of the chocolate flavor was devine. The chewiness, oh… There was nothing I wanted more in the whole world after I finished it, then to eat another one. Alas, its twin was burried in my pack somewhere. Probably for the best.
Rejuvenated kind of, I staggered to my feet and trundled along the trail as it contoured around the mountain. Views were excellent all around before I disappeared back into the trees for the last few miles to camp.
I made sure that there was nothing left to eat within reach, then gathered water and began looking for a flat spot. The search took me all the way to the widely spaced forest near a paved road. I smelled the scent of a campfire as I approached. Had I caught up with SOS? He didn’t seem like the campfire type. Nope, it was two new flip-flop hikers who had started hiking north from Damascus with their Australian Shepherd, Pearl. The pooch was only two years old, and thus only new a world wracked by COVID and was accordingly unused to encountering strangers. She barked continuously for the entirety of our ten minute conversation. Clearly new to the game, and not understanding how desperately someone hiking after 7pm just wants to drop their pack, eat, and go to sleep, they pried me for information about my hike. I indulged, but used the berserk dog as an excuse to make myself scarce.
I pitched my tent a hundred yards away, and wasted no time getting horizontal. The full moon shone like a lantern through my tent mesh as I ate my dinner and desert. I added up my mileage, and lay back wondering why that climb was so hard and why that bar was so good. I doubted that I could have had the latter without the former. It was a fair trade. One that I’d make it again in a heartbeat. Not tonight though. Maybe tomorrow, if I’m lucky.
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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