It was a bit warmer last night but I still had to employ the puffy in the wee hours of the morning. I draped it over my long johns underneath the covers and felt much more comfortable. I managed to sleep until the late great hour of 6:25am. I phone zombied for a little while and wrote an email to my friend halfway who continues to be a source of support and humor as I make my way north. Around 7:15 I dragged myself out of bed and began packing up the last bits and bobs that needed to get in my bag. The total weight with water, a new fuel canister, and 4.5 days of food came in at 24lb. Huzzah. That is lighter than I expected. It’s probably closer to 24.5 if I’m only wearing my warm weather gear because I had on my long sleeve shirt and calf sleeves when I weighed my pack.
Soul mama and I walked up to the big house gossiping about the couple of college boys who had their heads in their phones for the last 30 hours. We walked into the house and the smell of coffee hit my nose. I had no desire to actually drink it, but it was a cozy smell nonetheless. I sat on the couch and talked to fern and her partner chill bill who I met around the whiterock cliff area awhile ago. She’s had some ankle issues as well after sitting down hard on her ankle during a fall. The call for breakfast came and the hungry hikers piled into a line. I managed to eat slightly less than yesterday. Here’s a mediocre picture of the breakfast spread:
I sat at a table combined with thru hikers an older couple who stayed in the tree house and arrived by car. I asked where they live to fill the silence and when they gave their answer (TN somewhere) the hiker next to them said no way! I’m from there. Thus began the conversation that follows an enjoyable coincidence. It turns out the husband retired from school admin to become an Alcohol & drug counselor so we also had something in common.
Around 8:40 I excused myself and said goodbye to my host. She gave me a hug and told me to be safe. I asked her about compost and she said they have very little waste between the hikers and their animals, which made me feel better about the copious amounts of food still sitting on the buffet. Then I went to collect my belongings and hit the bathroom one more time. I very nearly forgot to change into my new shoes and regretfully put my old ones in the hiker pile. I saved all of my old shoes from my 2017 hike, but I ended up throwing them out later, so I won’t be saving them this time. I put my phone on the charger to see if I could get it back to 100% and put on sunscreen to please the world.
The guys in the hostel bumbled around putting their stuff together while I made notes laying on my bed. I left the hostel around 9:20 and Walked up gravel path towards the road. I took a left turn onto the shoulder of the 3 lane busy road with Tractor trailers whizzing by.
I Stepped onto the actual trail at 9:30. It took me on a Slight uphill and then it was an easy trip over to the small side road that I had crossed getting back to the trail. Yes, I walked forwards to go backwards because it meant that I wasn’t cutting off a section of the trail. I crossed the small paved side road and went Down into the woods. The trail took me up mildly graded switchbacks connected by high log steps. I had a moderate case of Biscuit lungs and a fully loaded pack, but my legs felt strong.
Morning light came in from my right and cast light on the Ferns and rhododendrons lining the trail. The Road noise lasted for awhile, but I didn’t notice it fade away.
I eventually came to a Slow and steady climb through tall grass and a small meadow. Matt, the guy from TN who slept in the top bunk last night, passed me shortly after we entered the overgrown section. he disappeared in and out of tall grass ahead of me until he took the turn into the woods.
After several hundred yards of pushing through thick grass, the trail opened up ever so slightly, and I thanked whoever had mown part of the meadow. I Saw a new purple flower and got this view behind me at the end of the meadow.
Then the trail took me Back into the shady woods. After the hot sunny climb, I Needed to take off my calf sleeves but I decided to wait for a break. In the meantime, I Rolled them down making it look like I had on like 4 pairs of socks.
I Continued upward breathing heavily. The trail Took a slight right onto a flat and wider lane that was sometimes overgrown and sometimes clear sailing. The Humidity felt high and there were hazy clouds in the sky that felt like rain. I Wound my way through the woods on the flat trail as it narrowed and widened. At some point, I Heard a bird and looked up to see a male cardinal high in a tree to my right.
The trail went Uphill Through another field. I Saw an older hiker take a picture at seemingly nothing, but when I got to that part of the trail I spied his subject.
I called out to Single mom who was close behind me that there was a surprise for him. Single mom is neither single, nor a mom. His trailname has irksome origins. Apparently he was cooking dinner one night and claimed that he felt like a single mom because he had to do all of the cooking and cleaning. When I heard the story the day before, I’d wanted so badly to pointedly say something to the effect of “oh, so you had to TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF? ALL ALONE? that must have been hard for you..“
When he saw the turtle I heard him say hey buddy and he stopped for a picture. I kept walking up the hill and stopped near the older guy to take this picture.
The man Asked me if I was going all the way. I said Yes and no, and told him I was finishing a thru hike from 2017. I stood there to send a few texts with a bit of signal and he continued up the trail. Single mom followed shortly and then two other hikers that had been at mountain harbour. I asked the first one if he’d seen the turtle and he sarcastically said “what? Me see something unique and interesting on the trail? Not a chance.” It was good-natured disappointment and I empathized with him. Before I left the view and the signal, I Sent my dad a happy birthday text. He’s 62 today.
Towards the top of the hill, I Passed the three younger guys taking a water break. I waved and kept going. The trail took a downward turn through open and cheerfully green woods. I decided to Call Oakland with the signal that had lingered past the field. As we talked, I came upon a cemetery and pulled over to take a picture. The three kids and the older guy all went past me. The trail then curved around as if to go away from the cemetery only to turn right back towards it and take me alongside the fence line for a minute.
I happened to look up not long afterward and see a church steeple through the trees. “A church!” I exclaimed as Oakland was mid-sentence. This happens a lot: she’ll be in the middle of a story and I will see something that causes me to reflexively exclaim aloud. Spoiler alert: It’s usually just a flower.
Shortly after spying the steeple, I Crossed a small road where the church stood. On the other side of that road, I promptly Lost my signal. I also Stopped for water because the next source was 3 miles away and I had consumed a fair amount of my water during the field walk. The Older guy leapfrogged me again. Maple, a young woman from the hostel, also passed me. She groaned as she walked in front of me, sharing that she was stiff and full from breakfast. I agreed with that assessment. She quickly pulled ahead so i Took the chance to pee before continuing up the trail.
I walked over rolling hills to another small road and back into the woods. I Heard a large bird make a sound I’ve never heard before. It made me whip around to search the trees, but I couldn’t find it. Then came Another Achilles’ tendon straining incline and back down again. I Heard a noise and thought it was a bear but it was maple a few hundred yards up the trail. There were a lot of small campsites around, which made me wonder about the local weekend warrior camping population. I’m not enthused about the potential for camping alone given all the small roads today, but it’s the best mileage choice, so I’m sticking with my plan to camp at upper laurel fork.
Before I knew it, I arrived at the Jones falls side trail. I Thought about bringing my pack to eat lunch but there were 3 packs lined up by the sign. I felt like a dweeb bringing my pack for the extra trip, so I left it there and brought my poles. The Kids from hostel were all there, including Thor. I stretched and maple announced that she liked my tattoos and wanted to know what they were. I pointed to my left arm and said well you’re standing on this one, and, pointing to my left arm, I said, my partner drew this as a doodle. They all left right after I arrived, and I immediately regretted my decision to leave my pack.
The falls would have been a good lunch spot. I walked back to the trail and put on my pack lamenting my lunch possibilities given the lack of seating I’d already noticed. I also Needed to take a break soon to give my left Achilles some rest. The stabbing pain hasn’t been constant, but it has been more frequent than I would like.
As I walked, I saw No good break spots. I felt Annoyed at myself For not stopping at the falls. It was such a high school cafeteria thing to do. I Finally saw a little side path to a small tent site with nowhere except the ground to sit, but I stopped there anyway to give my feet a break. I took my shoes and my brace off. Then I Made my peanut butter frito wrap. I also Ate kale chips that I snagged from the hiker box. I like them in civilian life but I Wouldn’t want to carry them regularly. They crumble and they’re hard to eat. I Contemplated my camping options for the evening (again) and decided to still shoot for upper laurel fork, which is a water source with a few unofficial tent sites.
I left my lunch spot around 1:15. I Worried about my Achilles’ tendon flaring beyond return, and I did my best to take it easy. My Pace has improved a tiny bit between the simple terrain and my zero day. I had hoped the day off would keep my Achilles from being so chatty so soon.
I Went downhill a bit and realized I had been literally around the corner from the elk River, a much more scenic lunch spot. Oh well. there wasn’t exactly anywhere great to sit anyway, but the water was beautiful.
I Heard an Older couple from the jones falls intersection behind me. Raise your hand if you assumed that I saw a man and a woman. That, my friend, is the power of a hetero-normative society. They were hauling ass, so I let them pass me, but then they pulled over to look at the river.
The trail Followed the water part of the way around a curve and then turned left. The Wide river sounds were replaced by the hollow sound of a smaller stream running into the river. I pulled over to make some notes and the older couple caught up with me again, as did Thor who apparently had taken a wrong turn somewhere. The woman wanted me to go first, saying that I was probably faster. I said “maybe on an uphill, but I take a lot of pictures and I write a lot of notes.” She smiled, but I did as she asked and went first.
The Trail turned left and the sound of water instantly faded. Then it snaked back and forth above the river bank. The water sparkled and made me Want to swim. As predicted, the older couple Passed me again as I stood writing a few notes. I Followed them through the rhododendron tunnels until they took a short break.
I Asked their names as I walked by. They are Dan And Virginia creeper because they are creepin to VA. I’m going to shorten her name to creeper because the whole thing is too much to type on my tiny screen. They’re from NH and have hiked the whites decades ago and done a fair amount of the northern half of the trail in New England. I left them to their water stop and went up a short but hefty climb. I Tried to use my bigger muscles to take some strain off my calves and Achilles. I Snaked my way through the woods as a light breeze blew. Creeper and dan passed me again as I sat on a log giving my feet a small break and writing notes. I’ve given up on dictation. It’s tedious to stop so often but it’s even more tedious to correct the random ass words my phone chooses and try to figure out what I meant while squinting at a screen in my tent at night.
A few minutes after my break, I arrived at a water source before mountaineer shelter that had a waterfall high up on the hillside. creeper and dan had stopped to get water as well.
I asked where they planned to stay tonight, but They hadn’t decided. From the sound of it, they would end up at the shelter. I said goodbye and kept going. The Woods opened up a bit and there were fewer rhododendrons.
About a half mile later, i heard an eruption of leaves to my left and my amygdala said BEAR. I looked up to see a pileated woodpecker take flight, cross the trail and zoom up into the treetops. The loud flapping startled me and the sudden stop aggravated my Achilles’ tendon, but the bird was magical. It flew off in a flash of red, black and white. I was sad to have not spied it before it spooked, but I was excited to have seen one so close.
The trail took me back into rhododendrons on a Somewhat steady uphill. I Passed a trio of dayhikers, two women and a kid who looked to be about 12. Not long afterward I Saw another backpacking older couple (did you do assume straight again?) with a black and white wire-haired dog that had its own pack. I said “that’s a cute dog you have. All business.” The guy said “not really he just has somewhere to be.” Sounds about the same to me, but I kept my mouth shut and wished them a good hike.
The trail went steadily up with a couple of switchbacks but mostly straightaways. There wasn’t anywhere good to sit but I Stopped to put my pack down for a minute anyway. It had started to feel unusually heavy. I had a couple of bites of cliff bar and took a bathroom break in the brush.
Less than 3 minutes later, I arrived at a well kept gravel road with a couple of seating options. I Decided not to stop there because I didn’t want to be seen alone by a driver. I crossed the road and walked a few tenths of a mile where I Found a nice tree stump. As I sat on my zseat holding my baggy of cashews and white cheddar cheezits, I Heard a loud noise behind me. I jumped up but I didn’t hear any additional noises or see any creatures, so I sat back down and quickly finished my snack. As I ate, I Heard a couple of cars crunching down the gravel road that was a few hundred yards through the trees behind me. I’m glad I didn’t stay by the road.
I Continued north through the pines and rhododendrons. The were occasional root-ridden sections, but they were short lived. I finally arrived at the bench that marked 0.5 miles left. It had this small but worthy View:
I took off my pack and sat down for about two minutes to take in the view and enjoy the bench. Then I Continued on a slight incline and then back down towards my destination: upper laurel fork. I saw a new purple flower:
The trail took tight twists and turns and then went down a dark straightaway.
I Finally heard the sound of water and arrived at laurel fork, which was a beautiful stream with a well constructed footbridge and about 3 campsites. A small feeder stream joined the bigger stream from the right. There’s wasn’t anyone else there, so I took the biggest spot to accommodate my SUV of a tent. I could have also camped across the water in a sandy spot, but when I see sand, I think BUGS.
Setting up was easy because of the soft soil. I put my doors towards the water sources and leaving the broadside towards the trail (today’s top picture). Then I went searching for a good food bag limb and proceeded to take about 25 minutes to get my line on the desired branch. I got it on a different limb on the same tree but that limb hung over too many small limbs, and I could imaging the little chipmunks and squirrels sitting there with curbside service through the night. A solo SOBO hiker Passed me while I struggled but he thankfully didn’t witness any of my throws because I heard him coming. I was away from my tent site for so long that I went back and grabbed my food bag to keep it closer to me lest a little creature find it while I’m cursing and throwing a rock bag upside down behind my head. I felt triumphant when I finally got the line on the desired limb. I gave it a good tug and hoped that it wouldn’t break when i put my newly stocked food bag on it. The limbs tend to seem strong enough until faced with the force of pulling the bag in the air.
I went back to my tent site and set my water to boil. The problem with camping near water is that it obscures noise such that everything sounds like footsteps. I had to will myself not to jump every time I thought I heard someone coming. While my food hydrated I collected water from the smaller of the two streams. The lone female hiker I’d seen earlier during the tail end of her bathroom break passed through. I was sad she didn’t stop. I sent my location to the usual collection of folks and let Oakland know I had no signal and that gps messages were taking an extraordinary amount of time to send. Then I ate my dinner which was chili Mac with kale chip crumbs thrown in as an experiment. I listened to the water gurgle while I slapped at the dreaded tiny gnats and read Oakland’s latest letter. The kale turned out mostly okay. A tiny bit chewy sometimes but overall a success. I felt downright healthy. After I did my dishes, I had a few Doritos and a third of a snickers bar to polish off the meal. Then I brushed my teeth and flossed while walking around to relax my back. It doesn’t really like to sit on rocks and logs for too long. Then I went back to my bear line and managed to hang my barely closed food bag pretty easily. It’s so full because of the food bowl and toiletries, Otherwise I could easily roll it down at least 4-5 times. Part of me wonders if I should buy a new one like Oakland’s. Zpacks has changed their default food bag size to a bit larger than my bag which was purchased in 2017.
I peed while I was far away from the stream and then went back to set up my bed. I took off my shoes and crawled into the tent. Then I pulled out the evening and morning necessities (trowel, TP, headlamp, and tiny pocketknife because I’m alone). I took out my contacts, and switched into camp shorts and a new shirt sans bra. I assumed someone would come along while I had my shirt off because that’s how it seems to work, but not tonight. I blew up my sleeping pad and pillow and laid on top of my sleeping bag finishing off the evening notes. Then I looked at the plan for the next few days to remind myself of the mileage and because I didn’t really have anything else to do. I don’t like camping alone but I’m perfectly happy not to have to hold a conversation. I’m finishing this to the surround sound of the streams (big one to my left and little one to my right), the occasional squeak of my sleeping pad, phantom footsteps that are actually just the water, and the ping of bugs on my tent.
Mile 395.2 to mile 407.9 (12.7)
Total miles: 416.2
Creature feature: the surprise pileated woodpecker, a few chipmunks, the hiking dog, and another large bird that I didn’t recognize. It looked about the size of a duck.