Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Days 9 and 10

Today was the day I realized my body was no longer tip-top. My left knee started aching so severely I began dipping into my supply of Vitamin I liberally halfway through the morning climb. I was meeting my Gram and Mom only 10 miles from Moonshine Creek Campground, and it was all uphill. I let the sounds of podcasts and music drown out the strain on my inner hip as I criss-crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway several times before finally approaching the final forested stretch between myself and Waterrock Knob.

As I slowly got back into a rhythm after the final road walk up to the Visitor Center at Waterrock Knob, I began singing to the rhododendron and mountain laurels once more. A few choices melodies in, I felt a familiar pang of pain on my left wrist and peered down to see the second yellow jacket in 24 hours to launch an assault on my person. It squirmed as the last one did, unable to break free from its stinger still embedded in my skin. One well-placed flick later and I was once more on my way down the trail, this time rubbing my wrist gingerly. I’d later decide to leave my Fitbit at home entirely, abandoning my “10,000 steps and stretch” rule to the freedom of my swelling wrist.

I arrived at Waterrock Knob an hour and a half before my Mom and Gram – and I’d have it no other way. I have very intentionally planned in extra time before meeting my Gram and Mom specifically, because there is not a doubt in my mind if I was late they’d be calling the rangers for a search party quicker than you can say “black bear”. The time at the summit gave me time to catch up on writing, snag a few photos, play with a wooly adelgid diorama the size of my hand, and to grab a cold drink (which, even though their only offering was Diet Coke, I was incredibly grateful to find). I claimed a picnic table near one of the edges of the 360 degree panoramic view from the parking lot, cracked open my soda, and waited. I waited so long, in fact, by the time my Mom and Gram arrived (10 minutes earlier than the time I had given them) I had the beginnings of a sunburn on the back of my neck. After they took a look around and celebrated that I was still alive, I hopped in the front seat and keyed in “Asheville” to my phone’s GPS. “Do I smell terribly bad?” I posed the question to my Mom, who was riding shotgun. “Um… well, yes.” She smiled, wondering how I ever got into backpacking for weeks on end as my main passion.

I spent most of the rest of the day stretching, calling friends and family, writing, fixing my final resupplies and finalizing plans for the rest of the trip. Before leaving for Burnsville the first day of my hike, I did all of the shopping for the entirety of my trip and kept the stockpile organized in the guest room of my Mom’s house. I had a gear resupply bag filled with things I may decide to switch out or add depending on trail conditions and my whims: my Ursack, Zpacks Down Socks, Enlightened Equipment Torrid Pants, and a brand new can of fuel were among several of my options. The other bag was food my Mom would bring with her to Newfound Gap on Monday to resupply me through Hot Springs. My small bear canister was able to hold 6 days of food, a fact I made sure to test before comfortably setting aside my larger canister to remain unused for the entire trip.

My Mom dug around the house for splints and supports of various sizes when she finally found one suiting my left knee that I would be able to take on my hike. I iced my knee off and on several times while we watched a serendipitous re-run of National Geographic’s hour-long special on the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. I recognized the expansive Fontana Dam as it flashed across the screen and wondered how the foraging would be this year for all the black bears beginning preparations for the changing of the seasons before slowly drifting off to sleep, my body finding true rest with the knowledge I wouldn’t be returning to the trail in the morning.

The next morning was my Mom’s birthday. She woke to a fairy garden outside her office window, a present left in the night by her in-laws, a family of 6 that lived just up the mountain. Two stumps formed the base for the small village of houses covered in moss and small twigs. Later, my step-dad would affix the small black bear statue my brother and his wife sent her to a tree also visible from her office window. Gram came down the hill for spaghetti and meatballs and we sang “Happy Birthday” over a delicious double-chocolate cake while she opened presents. It was clear it had been the year of the bear in Asheville because without organizing or coordinating among any family members almost all of her presents were black bear themed: this included my watercolor painting of a night sky in the silhouette of a black bear, spruce trees poking up from its legs and stars dotting the swirling indigo sky.

After the festivities, I drove over to my Dads for a beer and to prepare for the morning when he’d take me back to Waterrock Knob. As I lay in bed, ready for my second restful night in a row alongside my cat’s nightly shenanigans, I reviewed my plan for the next day. Though I had been all too eager to get my resupply in order, I neglected to look ahead on my trail itinerary and realized tomorrow I’d be needing to stay at a front-country campground 2.5 miles off trail. Disappointed that I’d be out of the backcountry for 4 days in a row, but excited by the promise of running water and flushing toilets, I booked one of the final sites remaining at Smokemont Campground in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park for the next day before drifting off to sleep once more.

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