Hail in May (May 9)

I wake around midnight to clear skies and a bright moon shining white light down on us all. Then I wake again around 4 am to a heavy rainstorm that beats down hard on the tent. It is hard to decide what to do in the morning. I am camping up high, on the side of Whitetop Mountain, where it has been windy all night. I get up later than usual, with less motivation than usual, and pack up slowly. The sky above is looking ominous, and rain is predicted for most of today.  I feel cold.  I know I want to hike off this mountain, down a couple miles to Elk Garden, where it may be warmer. Even though I know it is risky, I can’t bear to take off my down jacket for the hike. I keep it on under my raincoat, and it gets damp on the hike down. At least I was warm to start!

It is always so difficult to decide what to do in the rain. No matter how many times I walk through it, I always spend much time deliberating over how to handle it. Lay around all day in shelter or tent, or hike through it? Set up camp in the rain, or wait a while and hope it passes? It is much different to hike on a rainy day when you can go home at the end of the day, and you are not depending so much on the gear on your back. I guess I am still learning.

I hike a couple miles to the Elk Garden parking area. There I find some other hikers huddled under the roof of the outhouse. We chat a while and stare out at the rain. At times it slackens off and I wonder if I should hike on. This is one of those places that Warren designated a “bad weather rest day”, so I have little enthusiasm for pushing on. After a while I decide to make camp on the hill nearby.

I find a neat little site, near a large mossy rock. As difficult as it can be to plan around rain, I have to admit the misty, rainy weather is kind of beautiful on this hill. Everything is moist and green around me. I start setting up the tent during a gap in the rain. It starts pouring again before I’m finished. I throw everything inside and crawl into the warmth and safety of my sleeping bag!

The day consists of napping, writing and relaxing in the tent. I’m close to the trail so I can hear other hikers passing by throughout the day. There are also many camped near me on the hill. Around noon the rain slackens and I crawl out to cook pasta. It feels good to eat something hot. I try to hold my wet clothes near the stove’s flame. The cloth starts smoking but overall nothing gets much drier.

The afternoon passes by slowly, though it is kind of nice to have a relaxing day. Around 4 pm I’m happy to see the mist finally start to clear. I even see occasional patches of brightness as the sun tries to peek through. I decide to try hiking further. I pack up and hike over Elk Garden. The hillside is pretty and when I finally feel sunlight I am elated.

I hike up Mt Rogers, at times in sunlight, but mostly under cloudy skies. At least I can finally see my surroundings again. Unfortunately I also note the clouds are still dark and heavy with rain, and swirling around in the sky above me. Soon I’m hiking in heavy rain again, wondering if I should’ve just stayed where I was. The trail becomes a creek with small waterfalls at step-ups. The rain falls hard, and then I begin to hear thunder and see lightning. The thunder and lightning start to feel very close, as I hike higher and higher up the mountain. The thunder is the kind that cracks and then reverbrates for a good couple seconds through the sky- really a powerful sound. After a while I can’t tell how much of what I’m seeing is lightning and how much is me blinking. I feel kind of scared.

The adventure continues. Hail starts to fall around me, falling faster and faster and growing in size. I have to laugh it is so sudden and so crazy! Soon I just stop and huddle under some trees to wait it out. The hail falls hard! I bow my head and try to huddle under my pack for protection. The ground is soon white with hail cover! I take several pictures for the record.  It is so unbelievable.

I had hoped to hike all evening but after all the sudden bad weather I just want to get inside my tent again. I feel scared to continue in the lightning but am pushed forward by the discomfort of being cold. The water on the trail is icy cold now with the hail. I start hiking through open, sparse, bald territory high up on Mt Rogers- not good hiking in a lightning storm. I wonder if I should turn back. It is at this time that I see another hiker approach- one of a group of boys who call themselves “the Moonshine Boys”. He whoops and says, “Old Soul, (my trail name), is that you?” I am so happy and surprised to see someone else out here. The Moonshine Boy doesn’t seem to be afraid, and I feel a lot better following him in the storm. He whoops and hollers, walking fast through the bald area and stomping through the puddles with glee.  He seems to be enjoying himself.  He even pauses at the turn off to summit Mt Rogers, to say, “Want to go up?” I laugh in disbelief- I don’t want to press my luck.

We reach the shelter area and start to see tents huddles under the spruce-fir groves. The pickings are limited. Much of the ground is covered in puddles. I find a suitable place eventually and set up the tent in the rain for the second time today. But I can’t complain too much, I just feel happy to be dry again and warm inside my tent. What an adventurous day! It is one I will remember for a long time.

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