Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 20
I woke up early, and knowing the day had 23 miles on the schedule I was ready to get a move on. From the sound of the raindrops on the shelter roof it sounded like I had a break in the weather, and I was eager to take advantage of it. I’m always careful to make as little noise as possible when waking up earlier than others on trail, and my foam sleeping pad is the best piece of gear for a quiet for set-up and packdown as well as general tossing and turning through the night. My shelter-mates began to stir just after I retrieved my bear canister and had my morning run to the privy, but I quickly bid them a good morning and happy rest of their travels before setting off down the trail once more.
It wasn’t long before I had tackled the majority of the major climb for the morning, but found myself at the intersection of a bad weather alternate with the Appalachian Trail. The alternate would keep me below treeline and reconnect with with the main trail in 1.5 miles if I decided to take it. It was a foggy morning and I couldn’t see more than 10 yards in front of me, but there was no thunder or lightning so I opted for the scenic route that would take me directly up and over the rocky summit. It started raining just as I began my scramble, but my Altras had no issue gripping the rigid surface below my feet – wood was what I needed to watch out for. But as the ridge became reminiscent of long, rocky scrambles in PA, it soon became aparrent no foot boards would be in my future. I soon found myself in a natural playground – hopping from one large boulder to another, at time firmly planting my booty and lowering myself down to ease the impact on my knees, and using my hands to help launch myself up and over exposed sections of the traverse.
As I rounded a particularly large boulder in my path, I began taking steps down what seemed to be a somewhat overgrown section of trail. Between the branches and brambles, it wasnt long before I decided to whip out my GPX track and FarOut Guides to double-check my bearing – the only problem being the trail wasn’t always a straight line with a true bearing north, and that was especially true of this winding rocky ridge. I turned around several times, took a few deep breaths, and headed back the way I came. After additional confusion at where I had lost the trail and a realization the fog was thicker than ever (or so my mind led me to believe), I began climbing hand-over-foot up a jagged trail to the right. After 100 yards or so I peered down at my phone again to double-check my decision – I was back on trail and heading north! Only another half mile of the rocky traverse to go – phew.
The rest of the day I spent imagining I was a skilled tracker as I followed the hoof prints of several deer down the trail, their tracks perfectly preserved by the thick layers of mud. I would follow the tracks of what seemed to be a lone deer for nearly half a mile before they’d disappear past a game trail – only to begin again another 100 yards north. It felt like a game where I had no control over the outcome but was able to remain happily curious about the whole experience nonetheless. As my mileage for the day approached a cool 15, I began reaping the benefits of holding out hope – a dozen deer spread out over 2-3 miles of trail, all seemingly on their own but close enough it couldn’t be a coincidence. I spooked the majority, and often their white tails were the first and last thing I would see as they darted away through the brush. Several crossed the trail in front of me as I approached, and I patiently paused my journey north to wait and admire their cautious strides.
As I approached my destination for the night, I wondered whether or not I’d have any company for my final shelter-stay of the trip. It was then I heard a *crunch* and a *snap* to the left of the trail up ahead. As my eyes adjusted from the tunnel vision of the last 18 miles, I realized I was staring at a young black bear – who was staring right back at me. We appeared to equally catch each other by surprise, so I quickly began clacking my trekking poles over my head and let out a demanding, “Hey bear!”, to see if this youngster meant trouble. Before I could let out another shout, the black bear turned tail and ran down the left side of the ridge, further away from the shelter I’d be staying at only 0.1 miles north down the trail. It’s nights like these that the bear canister is worth the weight.
The evening passed in a blissful blanket of humidity and raindrops, which began falling just as I was finishing dinner. My Ziplock bag method for cooking and eating sans spoon was effective, and that’s all it needed to be. In fact it actually did me the additional service of slowing me down while I ate, the raveousness being a side effect of my gnarly case of hiker hunger.
It wasn’t long after I settled into my sleeping bag that I heard a familiar sound – a shrill squeaking coming from the corner of the shelter. I reached for my headlamp and shined it toward the sound – there, wide-eyed and pink nose twitching, was a small mouse staring back at me from a large hole in the shelter wall. It quickly rushed further into its hiding spot within the wood, and I gave it privacy. As far as animals that could make their way into the shelter for the night were concerned, a family of mice were the least of my worries. With the realization I had service from the comfort of my sleeping bag, I spent the next hour or two writing, formatting blogs, and on the phone with my partner back home while playfully illuminating the mice as they scurried from one end of the shelter walls to the other, following the lines of the wood in a satisfying pattern as they ran.
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