About a week ago I made a two word entry in my notebook: Trail Legs. It's a phrase we hear quite often, for example, "After about a month you'll get your trail legs," or "Once you get your trail legs you'll start knocking out 20s like nothing." Personally, when I first started hiking, the idea of a 20 mile day seemed unattainable.
When my average went into the double digits I thought I had my trail legs. Shortly after that I started doing 15 mile days. While Voldemort and I were separated from our trail family, we made a few attempts at a 20 mile day but never really had much success. We hit 19 a few times but always had to stop because we would run out of sunlight. Finally, right at the one-month mark, we nailed our first 20.
That was the day before our arrival into Erwin (see last post). After eating KFC all-you-can-eat we loaded up on trail food and made the short trip north to Curley Maple Gap Shelter. The next day, we learned what the term trail legs really means.
We reunited with our trail family and set a goal for the Clyde Smith Shelter 21.9 miles away. I was feeling really good the whole way, and somewhere around mile 18 I had an idea.
I was the last person to reach the Clyde Smith Shelter, and when I arrived Voldemort was making dinner and Forager was talking to his dad, Fiddlin' Jim. "Who wants to do something epic?" I asked.
Without even hearing what it was, Voldemort and Forager both said yes. "Right now, our current plan is to rest our bodies for eight hours and then walk 17 more miles, right?" I asked. "Does anyone else feel good enough to rest for two or three hours, and then start walking?" I continued.
Forager said, "You want to do a night hike?"
"Will we get to see a sunrise?" Voldemort exclaimed, her eyes widening. "I love sunrises!"
"That's the plan," I answered. "If we leave around 10:30 PM we should get to the top of Roan Mountain just before sunrise." Two more of our friends, No Filter and Snail Trail, stepped out of the shelter and announced that they would like to go too.
"Wow," I thought, "I expected more resistance."
The five of us ate dinner, repacked our gear, turned on our headlamps and stepped out into the dark. The hike up Roan Mountain climbs more than 2,500 feet over 8 miles. I think that everyone was very excited to do this because we started out much faster than I would've liked. Shortly after we started I was huffing and puffing and my shirt was completely soaked with sweat.
We toiled up the side of the mountain, carefully placing our feet into the small pools of light cast by our headlamps. We stubbed our toes, and stumbled forward, and each of us had our own personal cloud of moths around our heads. Around midnight visibility decreased. We were in the clouds.
By 2:30 AM the wind had begun to pick up, and it became apparent that a storm was approaching. The strengthening winds combined with our sweat soaked clothing forced us to shiver uncontrollably. It wasn't long before we found ourselves huddled behind a rock, teeth clenched and questioning the sanity of our plan. Still four more hours until sunrise.
"I have a tarp we can use to block the wind," Snail Trail yelled over the gale. The wind disagreed and blew even harder. Now instead of moths, clouds of suspended water droplets encircled us.
For two more hours we climbed, stomping stumbling and cursing the whole way. When No Filter yelled, "I see an overhang! I see an overhang!" I thought he was referring to one of those stations that show a map and a Do Not Feed the Bears sign. I pictured the five of us huddled behind one of these things, and I was strangely okay with that idea. When Snail Trail added "It's a bathroom!" I was even happier. "And it's unlocked!"
"We have running water!" Voldemort added.
We moved to the side of the building that was out of the wind and sat down against the concrete wall. It was nearly 4:00 AM and our bodies were beginning to shut down. While some rolled out foam mattresses or got into sleeping bags, I leaned against the wall, pulled my knees against my chest, closed my eyes and tried to sleep a bit. After this failed, I entered one of the restrooms, sat on a seat, put my forehead into the crook of my elbow, and actually dozed off for about half an hour.
At 5:30 AM we resumed our quest and began hiking again. By then the clouds were so thick we could barely see the hiker in front of us.
At 6:30 AM the sun finally rose and turned the dark mist into an ethereal ambient white glow. Previously hidden from us, all of the plant life surrounding the trail began to reveal their true deep green.
Roan Mountain is world famous for its views from the balds in the surrounding area. For miles, you walk along exposed grassy knobs with unobstructed views of the horizon many miles away in every direction. On this day we hiked surrounded by white mist occasionally broken by the pink explosions of blooming rhododendrons.
"I think I see a hint of blue sky!" I exclaimed.
Forager corrected me, "That's just wishful thinking."
"What time is it?" Snail Trail asked.
When Voldemort confirmed that it was 8:30 AM, we calculated that we had traveled 33 miles in the previous 24 hours. We found a flat slab of rock to sit on and enjoyed some breakfast in the mist. As we sat and ate, we were treated to a parade of day hikers and through hikers who had only recently awoken and begun walking.
Motivated in part by our full bellies and in part by the prospect of staying at Overmountain Shelter, we pressed on. Overmountain Shelter is an old two-story barn which has been converted into an Appalachian Trail Shelter, and is widely regarded as the best shelter on the AT. The lower level comfortably sleeps 10, and each hiker gets their own view of the valley below at their feet upon waking each morning. The upper level also accommodates 10, and provides something which no other shelter does: four walls and a roof. There is a large fire pit in front of the shelter and a wide open space very nearby with room for many tents. Water is convenient and as an added bonus, just before we reached Overmountain Shelter, the clouds dissipated and we were greeted with sunny blue skies and white fluffy clouds. Because we had braved the weather the previous night, we arrived around noon. Our reward was an extended stay at the best shelter on the AT.
Our total mileage, having started the previous morning, was 36.9.
The above story took place one week ago. Since then much has happened, and our trail family has had still more adventures. We arrived in Damascus, Virginia this morning. A significant milestone. I'll be taking my second zero day of the hike here tomorrow. Because it has taken me literally two hours to compose this by phone, I am going to stop now. There are beers to be had and burgers to be eaten.