2019-Day 36: stella edition

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The woods were ACTIVE last night. I kept hearing crunching and noises every time I was almost asleep. I also got startled by lightning bugs while I massaged my right ankle with my glasses off in the dark. At first I thought it was seeing the eyes of a creature, but there weren’t any lights to make that reflection, and it was only one glowing dot moving towards my tent. I heard periodic loud snapping that I thought would amount to footsteps coming our way, but they never amounted to anything. There were also a couple of howling or crying noises of some sort. I did manage to get some decent sleep after about midnight, and I woke up almost exactly when I’d told 6pack I would: 6:09. 

I stretched my ankle and put on my bra before heading up into the rhododendrons to take care of business. The ground was full of small roots so the digging of the hole was tedious. I’m sure it wasn’t up to leave no trace regulation, but I did my best. Then I retrieved my food bag. The knot slid right off on the first try, which surprised me given the light rain showers that came through a couple of times overnight.

I changed into my hiking shorts and packed away the inside of my tent. Then I took down my tent which was unexpectedly clean on the bottom. Dry pine needles are the best surface ever. 6pack came back from getting water and called out “good morning sunshine.” No one else had stirred, so I didn’t yell back. I eventually walked over to the shelter with my stuff and sat on the picnic table to eat my breakfast bar. Unc was cranky because of 6pack’s snoring and he had twisted his knee on the way down the ladder last night to rouse 6pack in an attempt to silence him. 

Unc and 6pack sat around smoking their respective vices. I do NOT understand how people do that first thing in the morning. It is the last smell I want to ingest at that hour.

Right before I left, I Put on sunscreen that I will probably sweat off in an hour. The day started with a Short climb through mountain laurel and roots that led me past what looked like an old foundation.

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The Texts started buzzing as my phone service returned. The Sun shone through the trees from my left. I was Happy to not start the morning off with a rocky jumble, but I could have done without the endless strands of silk catching on every exposed bit of skin on my person.

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I Slowly rose in elevation and the trail became a Little rockier here and there. I Passed small spring and stopped to double check water today’s water strategy. The Sources are front loaded today with a long dry spell from the midpoint all the way through to the shelter. This is not what you want on a day that threatens to be soupy. I decided to drink a bunch of water and refill at the next source, Martin creek. It had a strong flow and took little time to fill my sawyer bag. I decided to carry half a bag surplus just in case the midday unreliable source was in fact dry. I was glad to have filled up at the creek because the last reliable source a few tenths of the way up the trail was a paltry trickle. It would have taken much longer to refill there. 

I Called Oakland and talked to her while I wound my way through the woods. The terrain varied from rocky to forgettable with a somewhat steady climb in humid air. I passed the occasional budding rhododendron and mountain laurel.

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We ended our call after a nice long stretch with good service. I stood in the trail to make a few notes after the call and got passed by a French hiker who introduced himself as sock monkey. He squeezed by me on the narrow trail and i finished up my notes. 

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Shortly thereafter, the Trail flattened out. A Light breeze blew through the trees and ferns lined the sides of the trail. I saw what would have been a great snack place but sock monkey had already claimed it and I wasn’t in the mood for small talk just yet. I found a comparable spot farther up the trail and sat on a log with a tree behind it. I Took off my shoes and my brace and put my foot partially in the air by crossing my legs. It’s probably not that effective as an elevation technique but I did it anyway. I pestered Oakland with another phone call while I ate a snack. It’s a wonder she gets anything done. Then I kept moving. I traveled slowly to protect my ankle and there were still a lot of miles to cover. 

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Mountain laurel bloomed on either side of the trail, and tulip tree blossoms were scattered across the ground in various states of decay. The footing became Easier for a little while and the occasional breeze was accompanied by a drop in humidity. 

As I approached Indian grave gap, I saw a truck and a few chairs set up on the side of the road. Trail magic! An older man had three large coolers (water, sweet tea, and lemonade) and offered me Banana bread or a brownie. As I put my pack down he asked me where I’m from. I hesitated, as I always do, and said “I live in Oakland, CA.” He said, “okay, but where were you born.” I told him the north central part of NC. he pointed off to our right and said “well the state line’s right over there.” Silverback and sock monkey were there when I arrived. Silverback is slackpacking again today. He asked me about my ankle and I said it was holding steady. I sat down next to sock monkey with my banana bread slice and cup of water, which I felt guilty for accepting because chances were good that it was not going to be recycled.

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I asked the trail angel his name and he replied “brother Tom” and his dogs name is Moses. He had a missionary sticker on his truck and a hat with the same logo on his head. I tried to reserve judgment and was pleasantly surprised to hear him say to another older hiker that trump couldn’t expect to insult the Chinese people and get a trade agreement with them. I did not weigh in on the conversation. Instead I answered sock monkey’s questions about my hike and gave him the quick elbow story. I did ask Tom who had baked the banana bread, fully expecting him to say his wife. Tom responded with, “I mixed it together and god made it happen.” I smiled and nodded my head and said that it was good banana bread (a white lie, but it had been a nice surprise). Then I gave my thanks to Tom and went back to my snail’s pace into the woods. 

There was a small incline up from the gap. Sock monkey passed me almost immediately, but I saw him a few minutes later when he stopped to look for a snake that had crawled past him. I Asked him if the snake was black or brown. He asked why, and I said that black is usually fine, but Brown is questionable. He continued onward with his giant steps and disappeared into the laurel tunnel. 

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I carefully walked over roots and admired the mountain laurel mixed with purple rhododendrons that were past their prime. My Ankle twinged every so often, but the sensation never persisted. I took Careful slow steps and had to stop myself from taking pictures of every flame azalea I saw.

I tried to tell myself that it Doesn’t matter how long today takes. I Just need to keep moving forward, but the prospect of a 9 hour day of hiking (my estimate based on the my current pace of 1.5-1.7 miles an hour) loomed large and frustrating in my mind. 

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On a flat stretch, I Stepped aside to pee and then sat down to make some notes. I’m Trying not to walk without my poles, which means no walking and dictating. The Tunnel remained flat for a little while with a continuation of roots but it was still far better than the rocky mess up from johnny’s. 

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I came to a set of Power lines that had a light Buzzing. Clumps of Mountain Laurel  blooms popped out among the green of the overgrown power line corridor. I went immediately Back into the woods and the Trail turned into a grassy lane dotted with the occasional bright red leaf.

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I stopped to make sure I hadn’t missed a turn because it seemed too wide and easy. After a few minutes of easy walking, I Crossed a gravel road and the trail winnowed back to its usual one-person width.

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The Humidity was on the rise again and sweat began to form at my temples. The trail eventually Popped out into a field that would mark the beginning of the views for a place called “Beauty spot.”

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I had lunch with this view while talking to Oakland about the amusing antics of her niece who keeps moving the pins that Oakland’s mom as been placing on her AT wall map to record my nightly stops. Today’s feature lunch item is a spiderman poptart (because it was only fruit flavored one sold at uncle johnny’s).

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Apparently Oakland’s niece thinks I should be in West Virginia! As Oakland and I talked, I heard a few rounds of gunshots. I said as much out loud, but didn’t think much of it because I’m in rural TN/NC. 

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I got up to return my food bag to my pack and met a woman named mojo and her dog Stella. Oakland had to suffer through my dog voice as I greeted the adorable black and white dog with blue saddlebags. They scampered away while I gathered my belongings. I walked the rest of the way over beauty spot and decided that my lunch setting below the flat summit had been one of the better views. On the other side of the bald, I passed through another field where I saw an indigo bunting. The trail then dipped back into the woods. I stood in the shade making notes and heard a loud flapping noise. I looked up to find spotted towhees running amuck in the brush. A text from my friend RBJ came through. It turns out she’s having some serious foot pain and she’s taking a zero day to eat copious amounts of food and get new shoes. 

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I continued walking and eventually came to an intersection with a road. I took a right turn to stay on AT and realized 0.1 miles in that the road had been my unreliable water source for the midpoint of the hike. I groaned and decided to make the effort to backtrack because I was low on water. As I put my pack down along the side of the road, I ran into two hikers I’ve seen twice during my slackpacking adventures. They introduced themselves as lighthouse and turbo. Apparently they had been very close to the gunshots. So close that they called their shuttle driver to inform him that a man with a red pickup truck was standing at a gravel road intersection shooting a gun. I later learned that the shuttle driver then called Brother Tom, who then called the police. Mojo told me that she had been standing on the top of beauty spot posting pictures from her daughter’s wedding when the police arrived. Nothing ever came of it as far as I know, but it was quite the excitement for a short time. 

After hearing the firsthand account from lighthouse and turbo, I moved my pack so that it wasn’t visible from the road. They asked my name, and when I said “checklist,” they perked up because they’d heard of me through brownie and dizzy. Lighthouse and turbo are newlyweds doing the trail as part of their honeymoon adventures. They said goodbye and I continued across the road to follow the blue blazes to water. The unreliable source proved to be unreliable. The only water present sat in stagnant pools not deep enough for a scoop. I returned to my pack and kept walking. 

A little while later, I ran into lighthouse and turbo at their break. They asked about my water luck and I shared the news of a dry spring with low water supply for the rest of the hike. Lighthouse kinly offered to give me some of their water. I almost declined, but I decided to fill half of one of my bottles. As I stood with my pack on, getting ready to depart, Turbo asked about my tattoo. That led to my broken elbow story, for which I put my pack back down on the ground because I hate standing around with my feet overloaded. Given my slow pace for the day, I finally said that I would be happy to keep talking later at the campsite, but that I needed to get moving.

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The trail led me through another field walk where I saw another indigo bunting. I dreaded my upcoming road crossings for fear of intersecting with the red pickup truck. The trail went back into the shady woods and I started the climb up unaka mountain. As it turns out, one of the map points that I’d interpreted as a road crossing was just walking near a gravel road. I heard a car coming and ducked down to the ground, feeling ridiculous but also paranoid enough to stay where I was until the burgundy minivan was out of sight. I continued up the trail and eventually sat on a rock in the breeze to check in with Oakland. I think the gun shots story alarmed her, and I had shared my anxiety about the road crossing. I checked my mileage and was dismayed by pace, but I tried my best to let it go and know that things would just take longer for awhile. 

I Stood up from the rock and heard a bird chirping above me. I spotted a dark, all-blue bird. I Couldn’t tell if it was another bunting because of angle of light. Rather than delay myself further waiting for the brid to move, I continued on the climb. There were a few long switchbacks connected by stone stairs that eventually straightened out to an overgrown narrow path. An older man in his mid seventies with a small camouflage pack with small chocolate brown mutt walked towards me heading south. Determined not to hide from the quintessential rural old white man, I told him he had a cute dog. The man paused in the trail to tell me all about how his dog helps him find the bears. I couldn’t tell right away if they were looking for bears to shoot or just bears to observe, but I’m pretty sure it was the latter. He also told me about how bear cubs will drop 30 feet out of a tree and scamper away in front of you. The information left me wide-eyed and even more wary of bear cubs. When he said he hiked all over the Chattanooga state forest, his accent made it sound like he’d said “turkey state forest.” When we parted ways he said “have a good ‘un” and I laughed to myself quietly because Oakland is going to have a field day with the accents she hears out here.

As I continued north, My right foot started to get tender. I Stopped to drink water, write notes, pee, and filter the rest of my water. I had less than a liter for the last 5 miles. I eventually came to a side path that led to a Christmas tree dedicated to a suicide victim named max norrell. The tree was decorated in a variety of trinkets and there was a log book in a ziplock bag tucked at the base of the tree.

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I leafed through the book and ran across a message tucked into the middle of the blank pages that had clearly been left by one of Max’s friends. His pain and pleading made me cry as I stood there alone in the woods.

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I left my own message in the book and sniffled my way up the rocky mess that opened up to spacious pine forest. It then quickly narrowed back down into a footing nightmare.

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At Mile 357.7, I passed heart shaped rocks that had been placed there by a hiker, which I know only because I’ve seen the hiker’s posts in the facebook group page.

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The trail varied between beautiful sandy flat walking and tiny rocks everywhere.

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After awhile of hiking, I heard the tinkle of a dog collar in the distance and I ran into Stella and mojo again (today’s top picture). She told me all about the gunshot incident, which I covered earlier in the post. I quickly told her I would see her up the trail because I couldn’t keep up with her pace in order to hold a conversation. The footing eased up some as I made my way through a pine forest that eventually switched over to mostly deciduous trees and with even easier footing. I stopped on a retaining log to rest my feet for a few minutes.

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The last 1.6 miles were of the “head down get it done” variety. My feet and ankle were sore, but well within the range of reasonable pain. When I got to camp, I saw mojo and Stella already setup and freckles walking around with her pack still on. There was a giant flat beautiful spot open next to a man named “just in case.” He had apparently left the spot for someone else. I thanked him and said that in my tired state, I would make use of it. I went straight into tent and bedtime setup to get those tasks out of the way. Then I pulled out my bear line and went hunting for limbs. On my way past Stella, we played a little catch me if you can as she ran around with a squeaky toy in her mouth. 

After ripping myself away from the cute dog, I found what seemed like a strong enough limb about a hundred yards up the trail. It took several tries, but I finally made it onto a part of the limb that would work. I tied my rock bag onto a sapling and went back to get water. Just in case and I became acquainted as I stood holding my water filter. He apparently tried to flip flop last year and had to stop because of an abscess in his ankle. We commiserated over the loss of our thru-hikes and then I excused myself to continue with the chores that would get me closer to dinner. 

Freckles pointed me in the right direction for water because I didn’t notice the blaze on the tree to the left of the shelter. It was a short trip to a piped spring with a decent flow. I probably should have consumed a lot of water when given the opportunity but I didn’t want to be up all night peeing in the dark, so I drank a modest amount and filled all of my vessels. Finally, the main event could begin. I grabbed my food bag, pot, zseat, stove and fuel and joined freckles and mojo. Stella was in the tent taking a nap. She’s ADORABLE. A little uncertain about new people coming in to camp, but otherwise very friendly. Mojo has already done two long sections that were intended to be thru hikes and had to get off trail each time. She really wanted to officially thru hike so she started over in GA and is headed north. I ate my black beans and rice with the tortilla that I would have normally had for lunch. Then I did my dishes and had half a Twix bar that I bought at nature’s inn. My sweet tooth is picking up steam so the little bite size desserts I get in my box feel like not quite enough. I’m trying not to go too crazy with the junk food but dammit if snickers bars aren’t everywhere I go. Here’s freckles doing a little after dinner planning:

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And here’s Stella investigating the quality of my dinner after emerging from her nap:

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6pack showed up right as I was headed up to hang my food. I asked where Unc was and he said that he had stopped to get water south of the shelter. 6pack made a bit of an eye roll and said that he’d tried to tell Unc that there was good water at the shelter, but he wouldn’t listen. I said something about how you can’t tell men anything (sexist, I know) and 6pack made a whooping noise and jokingly got upset about the zing. 

My rope very nearly came off the branch I’d chosen when I tried to pull the bag up, but it held on just long enough for me get the bag to the height of the limb and tie the clove hitch on the stick. I got the knot on the first try because the bag is slightly lighter than yesterday and because the branch was high enough that it didn’t matter when the rope slipped a bit as I switched hands. 

Unc arrived as I was hanging my bag and Stella was VERY unhappy about his presence. He didn’t help matters when he stood there somewhat stiffly with his poles and his giant bag still on. I want to like Unc but sometimes he makes antagonistic choices that continue to rub me the wrong way. Mojo seemed confused and off-put by Unc. It wasn’t their first meeting, but I think his subsequent chatter about the dog barking wasn’t well received. 

I walked away from the low grade tension to hang my feet up over my head at the shelter. My right Achilles’ tendon ached the whole time I laid there listening to turbo and lighthouse interact with 6pack. They kindly offered me some of their arnica gel, which I applied after about 10 minutes of elevation. I hadn’t kept the nearly empty tube that freckles had given me because it was so bulky. 

Then I went back to my tent and sent a few gps messages to Oakland while freckles talked to Unc from inside her tent. From what I gathered, 6pack is about to run out of money because his unemployment ends soon. From the sound of it, I think it’s an unexpected development and it will likely mean he ends his hike sooner than later. Unc asked about making a fire right outside my tent. I wanted to ask him not to but instead I said “sure it’s not windy.” Thankfully 6pack suggested they make the fire in the shelter pit instead of in the middle of the tent sites. Everyone else is already buttoned up in tents so I’m glad they went further afield. Tomorrow’s hiking options are awkward. It’s either a short 9.1 day to the next shelter or a 15.5 day to an unofficial campsite with a reliable water source. I’m not sure the 15.5 mile option is a good idea yet. I might go to the next shelter and save the 15 mile energy to get to over mountain the following night. It’s supposed to have good views.

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I’m finishing this to the sound of birds chattering up a storm, turbo and lighthouse setting up their beds, the snapping of firewood, just in case snoring next door, and a barred owl VERY nearby to my left (so close that I got a very clear recording of it). It’s time to massage my feet and ankle and figure out when to pee for what will hopefully be the last time tonight. 

Mile 348.5 to mile 361.3 (12.8) 

Total miles: 369.6 

Creature feature: Stella! The indigo buntings, the mystery bird, juncos of the dark eyed and regular variety, loud robins that scared me with their sudden flapping, a few chipmunks, and a couple of bounding squirrels. 

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