Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 19

I shot up at 5 am to the sounds of loud clatter and general debauchery coming from the kitchen. I soon heard meowing from my Dad’s bedroom which I assumed was one of the responsible parties, then quietly settled back into the cozy, clean sheets for a few more precious moments of rest. Once I’d savored all the coziness I could, I discovered the source of the clatter hours befofe was the result of all my recently-cleaned dinnerware being flung onto the floor by a remove-the-tablecloth trick gone wrong. I eyed the mischievous kitties as they all pretended to be as hungry as I was, packed my gear, and loaded up for the final time to head back to the Appalachian High Route.

Following the French Broad River out of Hot Springs ensured my morning playlist included plenty of thunderous rapids.

My Dad and I swung by McDonalds on the way to Hot Springs where I crushed a smooth 1,000 calories, and we admired the passing kudzu, wild turkeys, and memories of past adventures in the mountains west of Asheville. Dry clothes, shoes, and high spirits accompanied me into the car, but were drenched once more when I emerged at the south end of the bridge over the French Broad into the first of 3 forecasted days of rain. My Dad gave me a hug but insisted on waiting until he saw me walk into the woods on the other side of the river before heading back towards Asheville. Only 4 days to go – but first, 20 miles stood between me and a good night’s sleep.

The morning was uneventful, but the consistent fall of cold rain required that I keep moving forward to maintain my hot sweat suit. I was a 0.2 blue blaze away from opting to skip the midday shelter and push on to keep the momentum of the day, but was pleasantly surprised to find the shelter directly along the path of the trail. As I approached, I heard voices from inside discussing whether or not to leave cookies behind for AT hikers – and promptly inserted myself into the conversation. The couple, who turned out to be day hikers enjoying a road trip to the mountains, only had a few years on me but were as eager to make conversation as I was, and it wasn’t long before we discovered we had plenty in common, namely in places we’d lived before. After insisting I take 4 packages of vegan shortbread cookies and exchanging hiking recommendations (mine being Max Patch and Hot Springs, still dazzled from my experience over the last few days), I bid my new friends adieu and set off once more just as the corners of my mouth started turning blue; the cookies disappeared soon after.

My first ‘lil squisher of the season! Known to literally anyone else as the unofficial trail mascot, the red spotted newt

With only 2 miles left to Little Laurel Shelter, my final destination for the evening, I decided to check my phone for any service on the climb up. As luck would have it, a flickering few bars made their way to the top of my screen and notifications began rolling in. Among the texts from family and friends wishing me luck on my final stretch was a message from my Dad, only one word and a picture to accompany it. The word was “Oops” and the photo, my long titanium spoon. “#%&$!” I knew instantly I’d either be shoveling my meals by hand, pouring them out of a Ziplock bag, or whiddling myself a spoon (with the knife I didn’t have). The disappointment hit me differently than other obstacles I’d encountered on my hike, maybe because I’d have no choice but to deal with the consequences of my actions while on trail, but I knew no matter what I’d make it work.

Rainy days admittedly make for great mood lighting.

Even with my late start and midday conversation, I found myself at Little Laurel Shelter an hour earlier than expected. I caught up to Scott on the final push up to the shelter, and was glad to see a familiar face. There were already 2 section hikers at the shelter – one was a 79-year-old that had been section hiking the Appalachian Trail since the 1950s. “I’m going for the Slowest Known Time,” he joked, and revealed his plans to finish his final miles of the trail for his 80th birthday in 2023. The other shelter inhabitant shared well-timed tortillas to help with the mess I was making of my Right On Trek Beef Bolognese, and later offered everyone sour gummy candies as an after-dinner dessert. They say the people are the best part of the trail, and I can’t help but agree.

While on trail, my goal is to fall asleep by hiker midnight (9 pm) and even in town I’d prefer it not be much later. Eleven pm at my Dad’s last night found me perusing FarOut, making small changes to my resupply and itinerary while shoving handfuls of Honey Nut Cheerios in my mouth like they’d disappear at any moment. Now, at 8 pm, the sun has set but the sky is still dimly illuminated and I find myself struggling to keep my eyes open. I hear coyotes in the distance and acorns plinking on the shelter roof, but no mice skitteirng around the shelter floor have made their presence known yet. My thin foam sleeping pad doesn’t provide much relief from the hard wooden floor, and I hear my neighbors rotating and readjusting intermittently on their air mattresses. There’s no place else I’d rather be.

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