Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 11

For the second time this trip, I woke to the sounds of my Dad’s cats stirring just ahead of the sunrise. Thanks to a McDonald’s breakfast, we cruised to Waterrock Knob with full bellies as we chatted about the trail, his weekend plans, the cats, and everything on between. Just as his red Mustang convertible approached the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a side road branching off to the parking area where he’d leave me, fog blanketed the summit and kept the panoramic 360 degree view hidden, reachable only on foot. With a promise to see each other in Hot Springs just over a week later, he took off the way he came and I set off down the trail.

Pancakes settling in my stomach, the gradual grade of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail was gentle enough to keep my knee pain to a minimum for the first few miles. I soon realized after cross-referencing CalTopo that I would either be hiking on a dirt road or the shoulder of the Blue Ridge Parkway for most of the day – not to mention the potential addition of a 3-mile road walk into the developed campground I had booked for the night. Road walks have their pros and cons. The pros are generally a gradual grade, a path clear of roots and rocks, and people giving you thumbs ups out the windows of their cars as they zoom past. The cons are hiking in silence to be able to hear the cars in front of and behind, the unforgivable feeling of using my trekking poles on asphalt, and that I’m not allowed to hike through tunnels.

I was generous with my snacks, water, and stretching. I knew what it felt like to put a hike on hold due to injury, and with a family back in Austin I couldn’t afford the time a potentially serious one would take to heal. With the exception of today, my next days in the Smokies would require fewer miles and hopefully the change to the tread and grade of the Appalachian Trail would be enough to slow me down and get my knee back in order.

The last mile of my Blue Ridge Parkway road walk, hitchhiking was already on my mind. My knee was sore from the extended downhill and the impact of heavy steps on asphalt and I knew if I didn’t catch a lift I’d be adding on another 3 miles to my already 20-mile day – miles that were technically off trail anyways. Suddenly, a white pickup truck pulled up beside me on the BRP and a man with white hair and a green ball cap spoke while lowering his passenger window. “You want a lift? I start work in 10 minutes, I’m with the National Park.” He promptly removed and presented his ball cap which true to his word read, “GREAT SMOKEY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK”. I didn’t have to think long. “Sure!” I cheered. After chucking my pack and poles into the bed of his truck, we took off towards Smokemont Campground.

My trail angel’s name was Richard and he told me he works with the elk population in the park. He gestured out the window to fields the herds are known to rotate between and hinted I may see them for myself in the morning. I gave him a thousand thanks and well-wishes for the elk before once again donning my pack and heading down a path – this one made of asphalt leading to a small campsite kiosk with two rangers inside. I chatted them up about the Appalachian High Route for some time as they checked me in and directed me to my campsite.

Forgetting it was Labor Day weekend, I was totally entranced by all the creative set-ups lining the creek that bisected the campground. My neighbors happened to be occupying three adjacent spots for their large family and had a central sheltered area with about 20 camp chairs of all sizes and colors occupying the space between the fire pit and a long row of coolers. After rehydrating a delicious chicken and rice meal and devouring it and everything else I felt my resupply could afford for the day, I soaked my sore, aching feet in the frigid creek water just a stones throw from my site for the night.

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