The foggy rain that we woke up to mirrored the mood of everyone in the shelter. Not only was Lucky leaving the trail, the night’s mist had crept inside and coated all of our belongings with a thin layer of moisture.
Lucky left the shelter thirty minutes before Nate and I, figuring his pain would slow him down enough that we would catch him before the road crossing at which he arranged to meet his wife, less than four miles from the shelter. But we scurried down the trail and found the parking lot empty when we crossed it. We didn’t get to say goodbye.
The rain continued for the entire day, dampening our spirits as we trekked across what Nate referred to as “all uphill.” We stopped at a gloomy shelter surrounded by withered trees for a lunch break. The sound of the rain on the shelter’s tin roof discouraged us from continuing down the trail but we had miles to walk and gray daylight to burn.
“Oh my gosh!” I gasped less than five minutes after we stepped back into the rain. We were descending the mountain when I looked up to see a man standing next to the trail ahead of us. He smiled and introduced himself and his hiking partner who appeared behind him. They were from Pennsylvania, too, and he shared his plans of pulling off an epic trail magic day this year in our home state. We told him to plan it for when we’re up that way!
The man and woman of the mist gave us an encouraging weather report- this would be the last day of rain for the week! We were very ready for some sunshine.
The sun was shining as we awoke to the chirping of birds. It was bound to be a fine day of hiking as we were set to retrieve a maildrop full of goodies from home at Uncle Johnny’s in Erwin.
All of our wet gear had dried out by early afternoon when we arrived at Uncle Johnny’s. We retrieved our two food boxes that Nate’s mother sent us and tore them open. Our hands went straight for the candy corn, shoving piles of it into our mouths at a time, staving off our hunger long enough for Nate to call his mother.
As Nate skipped around the corner, chatting like someone who hadn’t spoken to his mother in a month, another hiker stopped by. War Cry, who completed his thru-hike about five years ago, was heading north on a section hike, making his way toward his summer job in the White Mountains. Thud. I looked up from our packages of food to War Cry’s smiling face. “You guys have to help me eat this,” he stated, nodding toward the half gallon of ice cream he had just purchased. He didn’t need to ask me twice. I ran around the corner to tell Nate of War Cry’s kindness. He was off the phone in minutes, but didn’t immediately join us for ice cream at the picnic tables. He rushed into Uncle Johnny’s then came back out with a third package! It was from Nate’s uncle’s brother, who could not have sent a more perfect surprise: mega-stuffed Oreo cookies and packages of almonds, pistachios, cashews and peanuts. We shared the cookies with War Cry while devouring his ice cream. The nuts made the ultimate on-trail snack.
Full of energy from the cookies, ice cream and blue skies, we said goodbye to the folks at Uncle Johnny’s, appreciative of their offers of a discount if we stayed at his empty hostel, but knowing that we could not leave the sunshine this early in the day.
The next shelter was three miles away from town, but we didn’t stop there. For the first time this trip we hiked into the night, just walking until we found a great place to camp. When the sun was sinking below the mountains in the horizon, we summitted a flat-topped mountain and saw a perfect campsite along the trail. We didn’t have any water but spied a path worn into the side of the mountain. Tossing our packs to the ground and traipsing through piles of fallen leaves, Nate and I found water coming straight out of the mountain.
The sunset that night was astounding. It was as if the sky was on fire. Of course, the pictures do not do it justice.
Because we hiked until dusk the day before, we got a late start. It wasn’t long before War Cry snuck up behind us, unintentionally scaring the bejeebers out of me. After about a mile the three of us came upon a road crossing with a little bit of trail magic! B.T., or Brother Tom, from Erwin had lawn chairs and a sun umbrella set out behind his pickup truck, which was loaded with homemade baked goods, fruit, coffee and sweet tea. He has been blessing hikers with trail magic for years and his treats hit the spot. We sat and chatted with him, while taking in at least two sweets and a banana each, for over an hour. Then we figured we needed to make some progress down the trail.
Nate and I attempted to stay with War Cry up the next mountain but his experienced, trail-runner legs were too much for us–especially when Nate started experiencing the return of his calf cramps. He hobbled along the trail for nearly nine miles before I convinced him to stop. We had already traversed Unaka Mountain, a never-ending, dense spruce forest, and on the way down, Nate’s pace was slower than a snail.
At the bottom of the mountain we found a flat spot to pitch our tent with a spring nearby. Not knowing what to do with ourselves, as we stopped hours earlier than we had since our first week on the trail, we gathered enough water to fill our orange-juice-bottle-washbin and added Bonner’s soap. Then we dipped in every sweaty article of clothing we had, rung it out, and repeated about seven times. Nate used our bear bag string to hang a clothesline and we crawled into our fleece sleeping layers and curled up in our sleeping bags.
“I can’t feel it yet!” Nate announced as the sun started peaking over the mountain. We were just hitting the trail, but we were both optimistic that our truncated day had helped Nate’s calf heal. Our hopes were shattered not even two miles later as Nate began limping.
Having realized that giving his calf a deep massage allowed him to walk pain-free for five minutes, Nate reluctantly took countless breaks. At our lunch stop he was disappointed that he was slowing us down. We wanted to be in Damascus in six days and we had over 100 miles to go. I was just worried about Nate’s leg.
In the mid-afternoon we took a break at a shelter to refill our water bladders. Nate rested and massaged his leg while I trotted down the hill to the water source. It was much farther than we thought and I was panting from the steep climb when I returned to Nate in the shelter. As we were finishing our rest, a former thru-hiker and his wife appeared on the path to the shelter. They were out for a day hike and kindly gave us their extra granola bars and chocolates. It was enough to get us over the next mountain, to a campsite where we pitched our tent for the night, hoping a second short day would allow Nate’s calf to feel better.
Nate did feel better, until about seven miles into the day. We were thankful that he was able to walk so far without needing to limp, but after hearing the weather forecast for the coming days, we desperately wanted to walk over Roan Mountain, three balds and Hump Mountain, for what would be our biggest mileage day yet. And we did it.
The path up to each bald had been transformed into mud so thick that our boots became lodged in a sticky abyss if we lolly gagged too long. It made Nate’s leg even worse. Not only did his calf seize with every step, he had to use his locked-up muscle to balance himself on the slippery trail. The mud got even worse after the balds, and we were both searching for a shelter with anticipation as we slid down the mountainside.
“Well, what do you want to do?” I left the decision up to Nate. We had eight miles to hike and four hours of daylight left. We knew we would be able to make it on any other day, but it was this day that we had to do the miles. Knowing that there was one more shelter and a few more campsites within the eight miles, Nate nodded his head. We were going to do it.
Just as we were about to leave the shelter, a southbound thru-hiker showed up. He was the first of his kind that we had crossed paths with! Our excitement was replaced with a concern for our well being when the hiker started screaming while describing autumn leaves to us. Veins were popping out of his neck and forehead. As nonchalantly as we could, we excused ourselves and scurried north. Nate got behind me and looked over his shoulder every few seconds, nervous that he would see a wild man, flailing his arms, as he chased us toward Maine.
The wind picked up as we ascended Hump Mountain. Seven deer pranced across the trail in front of us and we were happy. Despite the false summits, we didn’t mind the trek to the top and even took the time to look back to over the three balds and Roan Mountain, visualizing how far we had come that day.
When we reached the tree line past Hump Mountain I peeked back over my shoulder and was astounded by the view. “Look over your left shoulder,” I demanded of Nate. His reaction was much different than mine. “There’s someone hiking behind us and they’re moving fast!”
Unsure if we should wait for the unidentified hiker or try to sprint away, Nate and I hesitated at a fence stile at the edge of the woods. If he caught us, we could be reassured that it wasn’t a turned-around, unstable southbounder, or we could simply allow the wackadoo to meet us. If we shot ahead we may never know the hiker’s identity. We shot ahead.
Just before we reached our designated campsite for the night, the mystery hiker got within speaking distance. Once we discovered it wasn’t anyone we had previously met, we slowed down to allow him to pass. We exchanged a few words with him, learning that his trail name is Montana and that he considers himself a “princess,” because he doesn’t like to stay out in storms. He was adding almost four miles onto a thirty mile day in order to stay indoors through the impending rain. Montana also described himself as an “ultra lazy hiker” rather than an “ultra light hiker.” It’s not that he’s concerned about the ounces, he simply doesn’t want to deal with the extra equipment.
Nate and I bid adieu to Montana and spent several minutes choosing the perfect spot to place our tent. When we finally had everything set up we climbed into our sleeping bags in anticipation of supper and sleep. But our supper was cold. Our fuel canister fizzled out just as Nate was getting ready to boil water for potatoes and ramen noodles. We’d have to make an unplanned trip off-trail the next day for a refill.
Despite the cold food, we were happy. The wind started howling, the rain started falling, we were the only tent in a bundle of campsites, but we had done nearly nineteen miles on Nate’s crampy leg! He had learned how to walk with minimal pain, making our remaining 80 miles to Damascus totally doable over the next five days. Or so we thought.
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