Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 15

All of us in the shelter that night settled in just before hiker midnight, but were woken several minutes later by a shrill, “Oh my gosh something just touched me!” right as most of us were beginning to drift off. One headlamp inspection later and the memory of the large rat I had spotted twice in the last hour scurrying around the crumbs of the kitchen area fresh on my mind, we let our eyelids become heavy once more and drifted back to sleep.

My morning in Icewater Springs Shelter was the slowest one I’d ever had, the entirety of my AT thru-hike included. Because I’ve always had such a large pack (I began the AT with 32 lbs), I developed a habit of going from totally asleep to ready to walk out onto the trail in about 20 minutes flat, an impressive feat. After a couple of weeks intimately acquainting myself with my Hyperlite and all the contents within, I was more dialed in than I had ever been – but today was different. It was only 12.5 miles to Tricorner Knob, and an easy stretch at that, but I was more eager to catch up with my old hiking buddy than crushing miles and bagging peaks. We began chatting away as we stirred in our sleeping bags, our catching up not nearly satisfied by the 30 minutes we had the night before the rat appeared and drove us to the relative safety of the sleeping platform. Around 10:30 am, after countless stories of past adventures, exchanging trail names familiar and not, we finally donned our packs and made our way towards our first destination of the day – Charles Bunion.

As you’d expect, it was a foggy day in the Smokies. We approached the blue blaze trail in high spirits regardless, something I’d never have considered on my AT thru-hike as off-trail miles were to be avoided like the plague. This time, the slick rocks and vastness of the sky just beyond our feet was mesmerizing. I now understood my Gram’s anxieties about cliffs I may fall off of, though generally those were few and far between in the Appalachians. RD, well-versed with many of the trails in the park, described the other side of the vastness, usually speckled with tiny hikers embarking on their own adventures to the summits of Mount Le Conte and Mount Kephart just across the ridge.

How much does my camera hate this weather? Exactly as much as you’d think.

Instead of telling you several times over that RD and I shared innumerable stories and conversation over the hours hiked together and deny you the tales, here are a few of my favorites:

Oats and RD back at it again!

After I hopped back on trail post injury in mid Virginia, I thought all hope of encountering my tramily from the Smokies was lost – the point was driven home by a gnarly case of food poisoning brought on by a meal shared with a hiker known as Five Star. One particularly nauseous day, still not fully recovered from the food poisoning, I treated myself to a 10-mile nearo into Daleville. It was cold and had been raining since the evening before, so I stood soaking and blue in the hotel lobby as I checked into what would turn out to be the only private room I’d have over the course of my thru-hike. After checking in and defrosting with a hot shower, I texted my long-lost tramily to check in. RD was among the first to respond – and he happened to be in Daleville with Farmer, KO, and IT, other folks I had withstood the harshness of the Smokies with a month before! A few excited messages later, we realized not only had we picked the same hotel to crash in, we were in adjacent rooms in the top corner of the hotel (if that doesn’t tell ya thru-hikers are stinky I don’t know what does). A reunion at the Mexican restaurant in the parking lot was in order, and we relished the knowledge we’d be hiking together once more, at least for a short while.

Another one of my favorite reminisces was from our time in the Shenandoah National Park when we once again found our paths crossing. Talk on trail was the AYCE breakfast at the Inn began at 7 am… we aimed to be there when the doors opened 5 miles north down the trail. Though we stirred at the same time early the next morning, I was off a few minutes ahead of my shelter-mates, thanks mosy notably to my foam sleeping pad which was easily collapsible in contrast to their ultralight air mattresses. RD and others quickly overtook me on the race to the buffet, but saved me a seat at the table when I wandered in among the tourists, soaked and sporting blue lips colored by the cold. On our first go-around, both RD and I opted for a thick stack of pancakes with syrup and whipped cream on top. It wasn’t until we got back to the table and began feasting that we realized we had mistook unsweetened yogurt for whipped cream, and globed a good amount directly on top of our pancakes. And of course, we ate all of it anyway and then went back for seconds (more carefully eying the toppings this go-around).

Circa 2019 Shenandoah National Park: AYCE Breakfast of Champions

Tricorner Knob Shelter, unlike Icewater Spring, was tucked away down a short spur trail hidden entirely from the AT. A piped spring crossed in front of the cooking area and a large piece of wood was placed over the muddy center to ease access to the privy and bear cables. As we continued to throw out names remembered and forgotten from our time on trail together, I spied movement near the spring. RD and I hopped to our feet and quickly investigated. A salamander barely larger than my index finger had flopped itself out of the flow and onto the board, wiggling in what seemed like a strange contemporary dance to the far side of the platform as we approached. Eventually it shimmied itself back into the water, but not before we took a closer look to admire its colors, patterns, and overall wiggly-ness. We fondly remembered the AT’s red spotted newts, common after rainstorms but none of which I’d seen so far on the Appalachian High Route, as our tummies growled in unison for relief.

RD and I arrived at the shelter just in time for first dinner, and realizing I had an extra days worth of food on the way to Hot Springs was cause for celebration. I slammed my second package of PopTarts for the day, added way too much water to a package of chicken and rice, and watched RD as he inspected and devoured a similar number of calories. Though his kit is more ultralight than mine, he had packed food enough for several days instead of the 36 hours he’d actually be out for: but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that if you’re going to pack your fears, extra food is never a bad call.

Our eyelids became heavier with each story, each laugh, and each ray of sun that disappeared behind the shelter signaling the fast approach of hiker midnight once more. At a quarter till, we had grown quiet and were relishing the private, dry, and seemingly rat-less platform of the shelter when we saw a light fast approaching around the corner of the covered cooking area. Within 3 minutes, half a dozen rangers sporting GSMNP t-shirts and ball caps descended on the space and quickly began unpacking and talking among themselves. “No wonder you had trouble booking a permit for this night,” I noted to RD, who was now wide-eyed and illuminated by bright white light. The sky outside was now dark, but the group had only begun to make dinner and settle in; it was going to be a while before sleep returned.

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