AT Day 41 – Ding Dong The Wind Is Gone
Cove Mountain to Devils Marbleyard
Lunch For Dinner Camp to Quiet Camp
AT miles: 25.3
Total miles: 790.1
Elevation change: 7572ft gain, 6903ft loss
Last night, I gave up looking at the weather forecast. I was tired of seeing “10 to 15mph winds, gusting to 30mph. High of 41.” I decided that if I didn’t know what the weather was going to do, then I could hope for improvement from a state of blissful, and willful, ignorance. And you know what, the system worked. The day was far from perfect, no Taylor Swift or burritos, but it was a good day with reaffirming views south from whence I came. I was even treated to several moments of actual warmth, satisfying a deep craving that I’d been harboring for days. Up a lot of things, down a lot of things, eat a lot of things as well. Another AT classic.
The world was clear and bright when I poked my head from my quilt in the morning. My alarm had already sounded, but I hunkered beneath the covers, positive that this had been my coldest morning yet. The frozen water bottles next to my head confirmed this. Fortunately, I had expected it to be cold and so was wearing almost all of my layers to boost the comfortable range of my 20F quilt. Yep, I was toasty, except for my nose, which was unfairly left exposed. I pulled my frozen water under the covers, hoping to thaw out enough liquid to stay hydrated through a few hours of hiking.
For the first time in a very long time, I noticed a quiet resting over the forest. Except for the intermittent scurrying of a few rambunctious squirrels, there was not a sound. No whoosh, no leaves rustling aggressively. Just calm. It was cold as I packed up, but the absence of wind made it easy to layer. I started the day with my fleece over my wind jacket, not the most efficient configuration, but I’d taken to layering for convenience, rather than peak performance, the last few days. The garments I take off first go on top, from puffy, to fleece, to wind jacket, to shirt. The latter two I hadn’t removed in recent memory.
My legs felt a little stiff in the cold as I started hiking down the steep trail. I kicked through leaves and wondered why, with regularity, the sun rises in a perfectly clear sky before a thin veil of high cloud appears out of nowhere to sap all of its power. I’d seen it before and I saw it again here. Not a complaint, just an observation.
At the bottom, I crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway again, then began a gentle climb up and over a minor hill. The uphill was warming and I was grateful for the chance to generate some heat. With the sun out of commission for the time being, I needed to do it myself. The trail flowed down again on easy switchbacks in a lovely forest of towering, widely spaced oak and pine. I crossed a few tiny creeks and wandered around contours, all sense of direction and context for where I was going lost under the sparse canopy. The trail knew where I wanted to go, and I let it take me there. I dipped repeatedly into my pockets for small breakfast morsels. With some new things on the menu, I enjoyed the excitement of opening more, smaller bars, but felt dismay as the empty wrappers piled in my hip belt pocket. I passed a huge shelter, big enough to sleep 20, empty for now, then filtered water for the big climb of the day. I removed my fleece, and got moving to preserve my comfort.
The climb was long, though smooth and agreeable. I got a kick out of a patch of miniature pine trees scattered amongst massive oak. It was a funny contrast and I wondered if and when the roles might be reversed in the future. I had a good chat with some flip-flop hikers heading the other way who agreed that the wind had sucked (see, it wasn’t just me), then was suddenly at the top, and over it. Minor views through the trees gave me context for me efforts, showing me that I was now higher than most things, but there were no sweeping vistas. I took a swig of slushy water, and moved on.
Lunch at Cornelius Creek Shelter followed soon after. I spread out on the sunny bench and ate chunk after torn chunk of sourdough doused in mayo. It was even better today. Other snacks came in handfuls, but I always returned to my loaf and squeeze tube, until it was gone. For the first time in days, I was warm while sitting still, so I lounged a little bit, extending my stay for longer than I expected. It was just so darn nice. In my leisure, a few things to write down came to mind, so I made note, pleased to see that my brain was relaxing too.
I took a gamble not filtering more water for myself at the nearby creek, confident that the potential consequences for stretching one liter of water over nine miles were minor relative to the benefits to stoking my laziness. It was still cool, and the elevation profile looked reasonable. I made good time after my lunch break stiffness dissipated, cruising through the classic mixture of rhododendron and oak. The trail was rocky at some points, but the lightness of my near-foodless pack allowed me to smooth over the worst with gliding strides and little hops.
Black Rock overlook provided some cool views to the west, rolling pastures under a hazy sky of changing weather. Then it was up to Apple Orchard Mountain. I actually needed to remove my wind jacket for the steep climb, hiking in just my shirt for the first time in days. It felt weird, exposed, good even. As I neared, then eclipsed, 4000ft in elevation, tiny pockets of white from the last snow huddled in the shaded valleys of trees’ root structures, final holdouts of winter’s rear guard. On top, a grassy meadow afforded some views, but my attention was kept by the giant golf ball radio tower perched behind razor wire on the summit. I’d thought I could make it out from the summit of McAfee Knob a few days prior and wondered what it was. I didn’t expect to come so close, but it had been the tallest thing on the distant horizon. Of course the AT was going to take me there. I should have seen it coming.
I put my wind jacket back on for the great descent. I passed under The Guillotine, a granite chockstone hanging above the trail, then cruised down gentle switchbacks. I spoke for a little while with Pits, who was coming the other way as he slack packed himself on this portion of the trail. His demeanor and genuine Michigan kindness made him an easy person to converse with, and I left our interaction feeling like a better person somehow. It was short, and not necessarily profound, but those few minutes were to become my favorite moment of the day.
U2’s track, Volcano, looped in my head for some reason as hiked fast, thirsty and smelling camp. I was called to jog some easier portions. Stubbed toes were plentiful. I grabbed a liter of water at the next stream, just enough to get me up and over the last major obstacle of the day, Highcock Knob. Again, I found myself thinking, “of course the AT goes right over the top of the highest thing around.” The trail was rocky and steep on the way up, but smooth and gentle on the way down. Just the way I like it. I ate all my remaining snacks for the day as my pace slowed and my mind fatigued. I still had a few miles until camp, but that last climb killed me. I was gassed.
I filled up my bottles for the night at the next saddle, then did what I had to do to make it to my designated stopping point. The trail junction was nothing to look at, but a fire pit and flat spot for a tent or two amidst a garden of small granite boulders was just what I needed. I pitched, I lay back, I ate. Mashed potatoes and mayo followed an appetizer of peanut butter tacos. The last of my cookies finished things off. Once my munching and rustling of plastic bags had subsided, the night was perfectly peaceful. Not a breath of wind. Not a farting pickup truck in the distance. Just quiet. I wondered if maybe it was the silence that I craved most during a windy stretch of weather. Or a restful stillness. The world now felt relaxed and I felt relaxed too. It felt like that’s all I had ever wanted.
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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