Day Nine: Boots Off Hostel to Campsite near Turkeypen Gap. 13.1 mi
We were up early again to try and knock out as much of the day’s hike before the temps got the better of us. Downed some coffee and donuts while listening to a thru hiker who just arrived tell of how he had lost all of his food to a bear a couple of miles up the trail. As it turned out, despite ample warnings in the trail guides and on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website of bear encounters from here through the area around Watauga Lake AND despite signs saying the Watauga Lake Shelter was closed due to bear activity (and had been for quite some time), this brilliant gentleman decided to stay at the shelter anyway. Long story short, the bear made off with all of his food after destroying some of his gear, at which point he retreated to Boots Off to resupply and share his tale of stupidity. Unfortunately, he seemed to get a kick out of the whole ordeal.
We said our goodbyes to Loonie and her sister and got going. On the descent from Pond Mountain the day before, I had turned my left ankle pretty badly. It was a bit stiff and sore this morning but seemed to be doing better as the day wore on. We crossed US 321 right out of the gate and walked onto the beach on beautiful Watauga Lake. Looked out over the lake, snapped some pics and hiked on.
The trail wrapped around the lake, staying near the shore for the next three miles to the dam, passing the aforementioned closed shelter on the way. Walked across the dam, snapping more pics, and started the long, 6 mile climb up to Vandeventer Shelter.
Tons of Mayapple lined the trail, many in bloom, and Deep Woods spotted another Pink Lady Slipper and some Fire Pink, the only ones we would encounter. I still have not gotten a decent pic of one of these! Also ran across some Virginia Spiderwort.
The trail as well as the temperature and humidity continued climbing. Not long before reaching Vandeventer Shelter, here comes Liam. He said that he and the rest of the guys and been hanging out in Hampton, attempting to get Boston Pops’ phone replaced but that they were all coming up behind him now. He flew on up to the shelter, followed shortly afterwards by us. There was an awesome view from a rock formation behind the shelter and the three of us perched ourselves there, had lunch and talked for awhile. Maine Mike, who we had met at Boots Off the previous night, was already there when we arrived. Amelia, a young lady we had met a few days prior, also rolled in, as did Boston Pops and Cheesecake.
Break over, we continued our uphill trek. Once again, I was withering in the heat. At one point, I stopped, dropped my pack, doused myself with cold water and kicked back against a large rock. And I didn’t move one inch for some time. I did eventually pick myself up and continued on for a bit. On a steeper section encountered shortly up the trail, I told Deep Woods that I was going to stop at the next shady spot we came across and re-plant my butt there. He moved on for awhile, finding a spot he thought suitable only to turn around and discover that I was nowhere to be found. Turns out that the next shady spot I saw was a patch about three feet square right next to where I stood. I kicked back against a tree, hat pulled down over my face and had nearly fallen asleep when another hiker walked up. I imagine he thought I had died right there but I assured him that all was well and to let Deep Woods know that I would be coming up soon. For his part, Deep Woods began to think I had succumbed to heat stroke and wondered if he should turn back. Fortunately, the other hiker relayed my message.
I actually felt quite a bit better once I got back to my feet and made the final push to catch up. We were soon joined by Maine Mike and Amelia and the four of us hiked on together the last couple of miles to our destination for the night. Liam had already pitched camp, while Boston Pops, Cheesecake and Turtle came in a bit later.
Day Ten: Campsite north of Low Gap / US 421. 15 mi
Hoping once again to beat the heat, we got an even earlier start. We learned that rain was expected that night and for the next several days so, after some ciphering, we elected to add a couple of miles to this day and the next in order to reach Damascus a day early.
My ankle was stiff and sore early on but loosened up as the day went along and I began to think I may come out of this hike unscathed. All I had to do now was be a bit more conscious of where I planted my big, fat feet!
Looking at the elevation profile for the remainder of the hike into Damascus led us to believe that it would be a walk in the park but looks can be deceiving and Tennessee seemed intent on handing out more servings of “Whup-Ass”, just in spite. From here all the way to the final descent into Damascus, it was a seemingly endless series of PUDS, Pointless Ups and DownS, save for an easy walk through a beautiful pasture which we would be coming up on shortly. My legs were fairing much better and this section wouldn’t have been so bad had the temp and humidity been more suitable. Had I been hiking day in and day out for the last several weeks like the thru hikers, I probably could have run through this section, but such as it was, I was starting to curse every climb we came to. I probably need to re-think my training and diet strategies. Little Debbie snack cakes and Coke weren’t doing much for me now!
Three miles in, we reached Iron Mountain Shelter where we took a quick break and moved on. Next, we stopped at the Nick Grindstaff monument, resting place of a hermit who lived on this spot for forty years with just his dog and pet rattle snake. After passing away in 1923, he was buried here by the locals who then erected this monument. The inscription reads “Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone”. Sad.
Moving on, we crossed a series of bog bridges and crossed TN 91. At this point, the AT crosses a large pasture, sharing the treadway for a half mile with a handicap-accessible path. Boston Pops overtook us here and the rest of the group would do the same before the day was out. We strolled along through here, enjoying the views, but the sun kept us from overstaying our welcome.
Once back under the cover of the forest, we made a gentle climb over the course of the next two miles to Double Springs Shelter where we stopped for lunch and some rest. The next 3.5 miles were primarily downhill (with some PUDS thrown in to remind us that we were still in Tennessee) to US 421 at Low Gap. Nearing the gap, I was trying to be particularly mindful of where I planted my left foot as we made our way down a hill. As it turned out, I should have devoted a bit of my attention to where I put my right foot because I wound up catching it on a rock, sending me headlong down the trail, arms flailing out in front of me. Down to the ground I went. On hearing all the commotion, Deep Woods ran back to assist. Once I got back to my feet, I brushed myself off and made a quick inspection. Nothing broken. Just a small cut on the palm of my left hand. Thank goodness! I pulled off the flap of skin that was hanging on by a thread, cleaned up the wound a bit, wrapped a rag around it and hiked on. A better first aid job could wait until we reached the gap.
Once at the gap, we sat down at a picnic table and I pulled off the rag and properly cleaned things up. Ironically, the wound looked almost identical to the AT symbol. How fitting is that? Put some antibiotic ointment and small gauze pad on it and wrapped it up with some duct tape. Satisfied with the job and grateful that something much worse hadn’t happened, we rested for a bit and had a snack. At this point I noticed a sign across the road that read “Purple Heart Trail”. Hmmm. Meaning no disrespect to those for whom the road is named in honor of, I think I had just been given my Purple Heart from the great state of Tennessee. Oh, it was on now! Tennessee was not going to stop me. I would crawl across the border if I had to!
Turtle dropped down from the woods to the gap and we talked with him for a bit, letting him know that the rest of the group was just up ahead. We all moved on but Turtle quickly left us behind. That should tell you something about how fast I was moving! They would all meet back up, staying the night a few miles further up the trail than us. We were content to stop as soon as we could find a suitable spot to do so. That proved to be a bit more of a challenge than expected. We ended up finding a spot right next to the trail JUST big enough for the two of us. It was so tight that the front guy lines of each shelter crossed the other’s. We finished dinner just as a light rain began to fall. It would continue to fall after we retreated to our shelters and stayed with us through most of the next day.
Day Eleven: Mt Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA. 14.5 mi
We got up, broke camp and started hiking by 6:20 AM, holding off on breakfast until we got to the next shelter. The light rain continued but again, it wasn’t enough to break out the rain gear. Even at this early hour it actually felt pretty good, especially considering the heat we had been dealing with. The Tennessee/Virginia border was just 10.5 miles up the trail and Damascus just 3.5 miles or so beyond that.
Just a half mile into the hike we passed a long stone wall. Possibly the only remnant from an old homestead. Who knows. Moving on, Tennessee dished out a few more PUDS as if to say she wasn’t going to go away quietly. She was generous enough, however, to show us more Pink Lady Slippers. Patches of them! Certainly more than I had ever seen.
2.5 miles in brought us to the old McQueens Knob Shelter, now designated for emergency use only. Good thing as it appeared to be ready to topple over at any minute. We had that overdue breakfast here, though it consisted of no more than a protein bar.
We hiked on, moving at a good clip. The miles seemed to be flying by now. The rain, though light, put a damper on my hunt for every last wildflower and kept my attention on staying upright. The last thing either of us needed now was to get injured when our goal was so close.
On reaching the junction with the Backbone Rock Trail, the guide showed we had just 1.4 miles and one final, short climb to go to the border. We chewed that up and there it was, at last. The original plan had been to reach this point two years earlier but circumstances beyond our control had postponed reaching this milestone until now. Our first year out, the hike from Amicalola Falls State Park, GA to Newfound Gap in the Smokies was cut short at the NOC on the Nantahala River in North Carolina due to a death in Loonie’s family. Two years later, our south-bound hike from Erwin, TN to the Smokies was cut short due to wildfires around Hot Springs, NC. Now, at long last, here we stood, the border of Tennessee and Virginia. To record the achievement for posterity, we retrieved our phones and posed for pictures beside the sign marking the border. In the damp conditions, I couldn’t get my phone to work. The phone itself, and the hundreds of pics I had taken over the course of the trip, were fine but the wet Otter Box it was enclosed in prevented my fingers from operating the phone. Fortunately, we had more success with Deep Woods’ phone and snapped off a couple of shots while light rain continued to fall.
A third state and a total of nearly 500 miles had now passed under our feet since the first white blaze on Springer Mountain, GA. Not satisfied with that accomplishment though, we moved on, continuing the long descent to Damascus, VA. The rain let up during the remaining hike of 3.4 miles, as though the good Lord was welcoming us to Damascus, also known as “Trail Town, USA”. The trail dropped out of the mountains right between two resident’s homes and we stepped onto the street. The white blazes led us along the sidewalk for a couple of blocks to the town park where the welcome sign I had seen in so many former hikers’ journals stood. I had Deep Woods record a video of me ceremoniously crawling through. We snapped a couple of more proper pics and then made our way through town, arriving back to Mt Rogers Outfitters and Deep Woods car.
It was just short of 1:00 in the afternoon, meaning we had knocked out nearly 15 miles in just over six hours, our best performance in the six years we had been hiking together. Not too shabby for two old fat guys! Of course, the long descent had helped and the steady rain had kept our focus on making miles. Not exactly our intention of being on the Appalachian Trail to begin with but we felt pretty good about the accomplishment nonetheless.
We changed out of our drenched, stinking clothes and headed into the Outfitters to thank Lumpy once again for his assistance in getting David back to his car nine days earlier. From there we made way around the corner to the Damascus Diner. First order of business: a cold Coke! That was followed by a huge taco salad for me and a grilled chicken salad for Deep Woods. Maine Mike rolled in while we were stuffing ourselves and it was great to talk to him again. Very cool guy! Loonie and her sister came in shortly afterwards. It was so good to see Loonie’s smiling face again and they filled us in on their adventures over the last few days.
Lunch out of the way, the girls and I saw Deep Woods off and headed back to Mt Rogers Outfitters so the girls could have a look around there. I looked over the memorabilia from former hikers hanging on the walls, noticing a picture of Grandma Gatewood. For those who don’t know, in 1955 at the age of 67, she became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, doing so in a single season. She would go on to hike the entire trail two more times, the second of which was also a thru hike at the age of 70. She is an icon to not just those who dream of hiking the trail, but to those who have followed in her footsteps and completed a thru hike themselves. Lumpy called over, asking “Did you see her shoes?” I looked down to see a small wooden box. Inside, beneath a cover of glass, sat a pair of the famous tennis shoes she is so well known to have hiked in. They were riddled with holes, replaced by a new pair on her arrival to Damascus. No heavy leather boots for Grandma Gatewood. Afterall, she told her children that she was just going for a walk. Turns out the walk was over 2,000 miles long. She carried not much more than an old army blanket, a raincoat and a plastic shower curtain to use as a tarp, all stuffed into a homemade denim sack she slung over one shoulder.
I thought to myself that even with all of my expensive, fancy, ultra-lightweight gear and $120 dollar Merrill hiking shoes, I was still no match for Grandma Gatewood. On the other hand, I doubt that’s what it was all about to her, whether or not she would kick my butt. Nor should it matter to me. Sure, everyone has there own reasons for hiking the trail. For some, its a challenge against the clock. For others, especially on the AT, it’s about the social experience…the time spent with other hikers on the trail and in towns along the way. For most, it’s a combination of many things, including a retreat into the mountains and enjoying nature. That’s the primary reason I go and something I think I might just share with Grandma Gatewood. Just to get out and go for a walk. Now, if I could just get myself in as good a shape as her!
I’ll share some details and pics from the days Loonie, her sister and I spent on the remainder of the trip in the next post.
More to come…