Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 22
Before the first light of the sun had a chance to illuminate the dark sky, I was stirring in my sleeping bag. Sit up, put up hair, careful not to touch sides or top of tent (condensation had been wild in the mornings). Deflate inflatable pillow, fold, tuck into stuff sack. Stuff sleeping bag into stuff sack, cinch down. Zip Ibuprofen, bug spray, camera, and phone into hip belt pockets under tent vestibule. Change from base layers into hiking clothes, put on wet socks. Crawl out of tent, careful not to touch sides or top!! Remove sleeping pad, place stuff sacks ontop. Remove tent stakes, shake tent out thoroughly before folding, rolling, and stuffing into sack. Pack: tent horizontal on first layer, sleeping bag, clothes bag, and itty-bitty-ditty-bag on second layer: now it’s time to retrieve the bear canister. Make snacks and drink mixes accessible in outside pockets. Squish itty-bitty-ditty-bag and kitchen kit into bear canister – it’s a perfect fit. A thorough teethbrushing, cat hole dig, and clinching down of my sleeping pad on the top of my pack and I was ready to tackle my final day on trail, headlamp and down jacket in place for morning support.
It wasn’t more than half a mile before, just like that, I took my final steps on the Appalachian Trail of the journey. It had been a wonder to revisit the trail where I first fell in love with long distance backpacking, and felt like I made peace with some of the miles that had previously left me broken and demoralized. As a testament to my lack of humility in claiming to know the trail and the miles under my feet, I promptly realized the half mile I had walked since leaving the AT was down a completely different forest road – and turned around for the second time in a few days to retrace my steps once more. I knew navigation for the day may be interesting, having only the GPX track to go by instead of a resource-heavy FarOut Guide, but hadn’t expected to take a wrong turn this early on! Thankfully I was in too high of spirits to let a simple turnaround get me down – today was my final day on the Appalachian High Route.
The Burnsville Connector began off the Appalachian Trail with a 1.6 mile road walk down a closed forest service road. Only slightly overgrown, it was a relatively easy trek that soaked my feet with fresh dew as the sun began peeking over the horizon. The next 4 miles of my day would be on trail and the remaining 15 or so would be road walking into Burnsville, so I was eager to begin with the Devil’s Creek Trail – or so I thought. Though I’m no stranger to overgrown trail, I found myself crawling and bending beneath thick rhododendron branches that only seemed to stretch across the trail at heights that matched my most useful walking appendages. The words from an Appalachian High Route section hiker I met at Standing Bear echoed in my ears: “That Devil’s Creek Trail: you watch out for that one!” After 20 minutes and lacking my emotional-support FarOut Guides, staying positive was a lost cause until the trail became more manageable. Fortunately the 2 miles passed quicker than expected based on my own estimations, and I was spat out onto the Lost Cove Trail, 2 miles of wide, open treadway I’d never been so grateful to see in my life.
I saw a few day hikers on Lost Cove, and if you’re in the area it was a truly wonderful little hike. A few grassy meadows at the top of the climb to the parking lot were my reward for facing switchbacks galore, and the wildflowers astounded me for the nth time of my journey. I soon realized I had service on the gravel road that marked the beginning of my walk into town, and called my Mom to touch base about meeting in Burnsville later that day. With the last bars I’d see until the afternoon, I scribbled an email as I walked to Jake Blood and Jennifer Pharr Davis, the creators of the route, letting them know I’d be at thru-hiker owned Homeplace Brewery at 4 pm later in the day if they’d like to meet and chat about the route. With that my service disappeared, and I was once again alone in the woods. What better time to give the gnats and mosquitos a final farewell concert?
After about 2 miles on the forest service road, I descended along the shoulder of White Oak Flats Road until meeting the French Broad River at US-19W. Along the way I saw 3 locals operating a large saw machine, running off of a truck and cutting entire trees in half lengthwise – we exchanged friendly nods, and each seemed equally curious in the going-ons of the other. I admired the farms, homesteads, and shuttered-businesses that lined the river, some country-living gems and others with roofs caving in and entire panels collapsed into rooms. Eventually the road jutted off to the left onto Coxes Creek, away from the wide, rushing water and I followed, preparing for a climb. Though the section was steep and unrelenting, I enjoyed the diversity of grade as a complement to my long hours of road walking. It wasn’t until 4 miles later on Jack’s Creek Road that I really had to pay attention and listen for cars coming and going. There was a shoulder for most of the section, but the diligence of the locals slowing down and taking care to give me plenty of space when possible was much appreciate.
Eventually Jack’s Creek Road came to meet the final push of my journey – 1.8 miles left to Burnsville Town Center! All that stood between me and the finish line was about a mile on the soulder of 19E and then sidewalks to the Visitor Center. The cars whizzed past me on the highway, but the shoulder was plenty wide enough to maintain a comfortable distance from the road. I imagined my Mom and Gram speeding past in her red Honda, one of them spotting me along the shoulder and bouncing up and down I excitement – even though I always carefully planned to beat them to any destination by at least half an hour to prevent an unnecessary ring to the rangers.
It wasn’t much longer before I charged, feet aching, up the final hill to Burnsville Town Center and through the doors of the Visitor Center. “You look like you’re going hiking!” The cheerful lady at the desk greeted me. “Well, I just finished actually.” In the parking lot I met my Gram and Mom, who were probably even more excited than I was that they no longer had to think about me being alone in the wilderness all day and night (for the time being), and admitted if they had been 2 minutes later I would’ve snuck into the ice cream shop next door for a celebratory treat. It turns out the treat would come in the form of 5 donuts, a beer, and great company to end my Appalachian High Route thru-hike.
Later, I’d meet Jake Blood at thru-hiker owned Homeplace Brewery, just down the road from the Visitor Center, alongside his wife and granddaughter and my Mom and Gram. He bought me a delicious beer and we chatted about all things AHR, long-distance hiking, Burnsville, and more. My Mom picked his brain on a local Pisgah National Forest logging controversy, and my Gram listened in on his experience with the reliability of satellite communicators to hopefully put her midnight at ease the next time I head out on an adventure in the backcountry. A man fundraising with Krispy Kreme sold us a dozen donuts, and my Gram watched carefully as I kept popping them in my mouth one by one – it was on the fifth I was finally full on the sugary treat.
After the 40 minute drive home to Asheville, I was beat – but there were still chores to be done. I spread out my musty tent that hadn’t been fully dry since before Waterrock Knob, and hung my sleeping bag beside it, careful to fluff as much as possible and tease life back into the compressed feathers. I hopped in the shower, scrubbing off what seemed like weeks of grime and muck, clipped my nails, brushed my hair, and finally felt like a human again. Tomorrow would bring more chores and the anxieties of jumping back into daily life, but today was for celebrating the 350 mile journey now under my feet.
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