Day 29: How Do You Top Seeing a Bear (and Miss Janet)?

Plan B Needed

I might need to re-think our camping strategy. We got back to our parking spot just before dark, after a short foray into Erwin to find some internet as well as place for Northstar to recuperate for a few days. All the cars from the afternoon trail magic had left, leaving us plenty of space, even by Miss Janet’s standards.

Even though the cars were gone, somebody had left one of those pop-up pavilions people use for tailgating. A guy with hiker clothes and a huge black beard sat under it with his gear spread out around him. He had a small backpacking tent set up too, with a large dog inside it that was desperately trying to escape and barking for all it was worth. That’s a little odd, right?

I walked over to ask if he minded if we camped at the other end of the parking area, and to get a feel for whether we wanted to be anywhere near him. He had a surprising amount of toothpaste dribbling down through his beard and wasn’t making much sense, but other than that, he seemed normal enough, at least by AT thru hiker standards.

I found a level spot and pulled in. Northstar looked out her window and asked, “Is that poison ivy?” This is North Carolina and there’s a stream nearby. Yes, it’s always poison ivy. I repositioned the van so Gus’ leash would keep him out of the urishiol zone and we set up for the night.

Alone in the Woods. Or Not.

A surprising number of cars and trucks came and went between sunset and the last time I looked out at 12:30 am, but nobody came knocking and the van still had all its wheels in the morning. The all-night rain, rotating neighbors, poison ivy, and the tenting wild dog complicated my nighttime pee runs and REM sleep, but hey, at least it wasn’t a shelter.

Oddly, the pavilion tent and toothpaste beard were gone by 6:00 am, but the pup’s tent was still there with no sign of the pup. Two new cars had arrived, but with no sign of any drivers. I need to find lonelier, less ivied camp spots.

Even more strangely, Northstar slept soundly through all this and barely gave me a “murmph” when I hiked out just before dawn.

What Gives?

Speaking of hiker beards, I’ve seen more huge white beards on hikers, shuttle drivers, and bystanders in the past four weeks than in my entire life. Long, bushy, dirty, and fugly. Is that an AT thing or an Appalachian thing? It’s like Santa gone feral. But I digress.

An Easy Walk

Today’s hike was an easy, 11.3-mile saunter with three short, steady climbs and long, smooth downhills to the Nolichucky River at Erwin, Tennessee. The woods were dense and dripping, the trail soft from the rain, and the skies were overcast and threatening. That, and temperatures in the mid-50’s, made for excellent walking, though the flower count in the long green tunnel was substandard. But I did see some cool lichens and shelf fungi.

More Hiking Math

I clocked in at just over four hours, with a walking speed over 3 mph, and about 2.5 mph with breaks and photo stops. Normally, my overall speed is between 2.0 and 2.5 mph. That got me thinking about mileage.

Twenty-mile days are the holy grail of thru hiking. Thirty milers are the stuff of legend. Most of my trail friends have started hitting 20 miles regularly and have left me behind. Or they’ve left the trail and gone home.

If your net travel rate is 2.0 mph, a 20-mile day means 10 hours of walking, say 7:00 am to 5:00 pm. That’s tedious, but doable. But a 30-miler at that rate would take 15 hours. Most serious hikers could hike a 15-hour day once in a while with a few days’ rest afterwards, but not many could keep that up every day for weeks or months.

All of which is to say, I will need faster feet and more endurance, or an easier trail, if I’m going to start knocking out 20’s regularly and finish before Katahdin freezes over. I’m hoping for both, at least until I get to the Whites in New Hampshire. Fingers crossed.

Lightning Strikes Twice

As I approached Erwin, I came up on a guy with a huge pack with lots of gear hanging off the back that swayed and jangled as he walked. I thought about taking a picture to remind myself to write about that packing style, but just as I pulled out my phone, I saw something move behind the tree he was walking past. I didn’t get a clear look, but it was black, furry, and smaller than Gus.

One part of my brain started checking off the list of things it could be – skunk, fox, squirrel, badger, etc. The other part called out, “Dude, look right.” He looks, jumps back, and says, “Oh, no.” Just then, I caught up and saw a pint-sized bear cub hanging on to the base of a 2-ft diameter tree trunk.

The cub squealed and scampered up the tree, perhaps the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in the woods.  Also, the most terrifying. All of us (two hikers, one cub) were frantically looking around for mama bear, and two of us were trying to film as we fled. All I could think of was that scene from The Revenant. You know, the one where Leonardo sees two bear cubs just before he gets mauled by mama Grizzly. Fortunately, mama stayed hidden in the woods this morning and I got some fantastic, if not a little shaky, footage of a bear cub.

And that’s how you top seeing a bear yesterday.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Spivey Gap (Mile 333.1)
  • End: Uncle Johnny’s, Erwin (Mile 344.3)
  • Weather: Overcast
  • Earworm: Your Kiss is on My List. The AT really wants me to know it’s the best thing in life. Possibly even better than my sanity.
  • Meditation: Jn 15:22
  • Plant of the Day: Pixie Cup Lichen
  • Best Thing: Bear cub, 5 ft away
  • Worst Thing: Mama bear, location unknown

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Comments 3

  • thetentman : May 9th

    Santa gone feral, indeed. I am still laughing. I am so glad my beard is gray.

    Thx for the post.

    • Jon : May 9th


  • Kelli Ramey : May 19th

    I feel like a lot of men grew beards and more head hair than usual during COVID while quarantining.
    Then, maybe they decided they liked them. Or enjoyed not needing to shave.


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