Misty Mornings and Early Nights: Days 1-2 on the MST

Nothing compares to the feeling of excitement that comes from starting a long awaited adventure.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re driving across the country, backpacking for days or hiking to the end of your driveway.

There exists a fleeting moment and with it, fleeting emotions. It’s the moment before the race begins. When time slows to a halt and the only thing you can hear is your heartbeat. It’s the moment when your dropped off at the starting line, not knowing how you’ll get to the finish. When all the planning, researching, and traveling become worth it. When you close the door, strap on the pack, and set off into the great unknown.

It’s that unknown element that stokes my soul. The possibility of anything, whether its good, bad, or both. Good days in the outdoors keep you coming back for more. Bad days send you home with lessons that turn a novice into the knowledgeable. If everything always went as well as you planned it, you’d be the same person tomorrow as you are today. Although change may be inspiring, its nice to have your plans work out every now and then. A little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either. Lucky for me, I had both on the first few days hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail! Except for when I didn’t…

Into The Unknown: Day 1

There I was 10 hours away from home, standing on the side of a highway, waiting for a ride from a stranger. I’d done some hitch hiking before, but this felt especially adventurous given the length. It was a 2 hour drive from the Table Rock Trailhead (where my car was parked) to the city of Asheville (where I started my hike) with someone I’d never met before. Turns out that trail magic extends far beyond the trail. I made a new friend and shared countless stories during my drive to the starting trailhead. 

The tone got a touch more serious as I watched my ride drive away. It was past noon on a cloudy November day. Even though I’d hardly started my hike, already there was no turning around. But my thirst and enthusiasm to explore the miles ahead of me was enough to carry the weight of any doubtful thoughts. I snapped a few pics, enjoyed the moment of unknown, and started my 7 day section hike on the MST!

Back in gear

Backpacking miles are tougher than regular hiking miles. This much I know, but it took a few of miles to get into the groove of things and justify the heaviness hanging off my shoulders. Thankfully this section of trail was very well graded and had seen lots of love from trail crews. The first 10 miles came surprisingly quick even with the weight of a 5 day pack. The MST follows the Blue Ridge Parkway as it leaves town and is closer to civilization than I’d prefer, but that would change in the upcoming days.

North Carolina had been in a drought for a few weeks, so it wasn’t hard to find a dry spot to camp. Finding a water source however, was a different story. Eventually I was able to, but I also found my water filter to be seriously clogged. I know I backwashed it before this trip but clearly not enough. Filtering water would be quite the chore from this point forward, but there’s no sense in worrying too much about the future.

I filtered enough for the night and made some dinner while the day faded away. A nearby owl began to hoot as dusk fell and before I climbed into bed, it flew to a tree right above my camp. The owl let out another call and I quickly turned on my headlamp to see it’s silhouette flying silently through the night. Despite the water filter, not a bad first day and being a huge owl fan, the sighting sent me to bed with a smile. 

Time to Climb: Day 2

With the days being short, I knew that either my morning or my nightly camp chores would take place in the dark. I opted for the morning. After eating some oats and breaking down camp, I wrestled my water filter and prepared enough for the entire day. The trail followed wooded ridges through a mist so thick, it might as well have been raining. Seeing every plant dripping with moisture made it hard to believe that water was an issue, but every stream crossing continued to be dry. What a tease! Nothing makes you yearn for some sun like thick fog and leafless trees.

Eventually the clouds burned off, the sun starting shining and the trail started climbing. From here until tomorrow I’d be hiking and camping above 5,000ft. If my plans went right today, I’d watch the sun set from the peak of Mount Mitchell! The last time I was up there was 4 years ago, before I’d ever done any backpacking or big adventures. Re-exploring places can sometimes be just as exciting as the first time. I looked forward to hiking those miles down memory lane, but they were just out of reach.

All of the new aches and pains presented themselves as day 2 ticked on. Nothing major, just the pack settling in. My shoulders were sore and my hips tender. But after a short break in the warm sun, and a pick-me-up comment from a friendly stranger, I was stoked for the second half of the day. Any motivating comments from strangers go a long way on the trail. So far the climbs had been easy, but this afternoon the MST shot me straight up into the spur and fir forests around Mt. Mitchell State Park.

Plans change

When the shadows began to grow and the shade became cold, I realized there was no way I’d make it to the summit of Mitchell by sun down. The shorter days were especially noticeable, and my progress felt like it was creeping to a halt as night fell. Thankfully after 20 miles, the trail finally passed a stream with enough water for me to filter. Time, weather, and all the aches from the day washed away as I quenched my thirst. The moon began to rise against the fading colors of the sunset. It was now 6:00pm, aka headlamp time in November.

About one mile and 1,000 feet of elevation gain stood between me and the summit.  I may have been late for the sunset today, but I would be first in line for the sunrise tomorrow. 25 minutes after my break I arrived at the top. Last time I was up here, crowds of people filled the area. Tonight I was the only one, and it just felt right. The stars shined above and the city lights below. Distant mountains lined the fading horizon. A chilly breeze whipped through the trees.

Your never really late, or early, but right on time and exactly where you need be.


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