2019-Day 42: laurel fork falls edition


I managed to get a fair amount of sleep despite waking up in 2-3 hour chunks and having nightmare visions of someone unzipping my tent. It was also a bit on the cold side because I left a door open on both sides of my tent. As I’ve done before, I wrapped my puffy up around my torso and neck to make up for the draftiness of the top of my sleeping bag. It’s super light but I’m not sure I would get it again (having said that, HQ I’m very grateful for having it and its weight saving qualities). The 35 degree rating just isn’t accurate for my body temperature. I woke up around midnight, again from 2-3am (ax murderer visions) and again around 4:30. My watch alarm went off at 6:10. At that point I probably could have easily gone back to sleep but I don’t want to get into camp too late tonight and there’s no telling what my pace will be. I sat up and put my cold sports bra on. Then I went up into the rhododendron armed with my trowel and TP. The digging was difficult because of roots and a gravel layer underneath the first few inches of soil. I made do (pun very much intended). 

Then i tromped over to my airborne food bag and retrieved it without complications. I grabbed my rock bag which I had accidentally left out overnight and took everything back to camp. I decided to pack up first and eat last. It took about 25 minutes to start to finish including my wardrobe change into hiking shorts and putting in my contacts. By the time I was done rolling my tent, my hands were black. I dusted them off as best I could (on my self-cleaning shorts), and sat down on the fire ring rocks to eat a breakfast bar and peanut butter. I also sent Oakland a good morning gps with the notice that I would be turning it off. The battery really doesn’t last once you start sending messages and I try hard not to use my phone brick for the gps. 

After breakfast I brushed my teeth and filtered my initial water supply. I Went through the tedious but necessary foot prep routine and took off my puffy to finish packing up my bag. The puffy removal is always a sad moment but this morning wasn’t too brisk. I grabbed my poles and walked across the footbridge into the rhododendrons on the other side of laurel fork. 

I Followed the water for about a tenth of a mile and then climbed up and away from it. The Sound of water remained strong for a few minutes. I Climbed up and into the filtered sunlight. My Hands were inexplicably freezing. I Considered putting on gloves but I decided to see if the hill would help warm me up.

I Walked across pine needles dodging the roots as best I could. I tried to take careful steps with both feet instead of only focusing on my right foot to help with the nagging achilles pain. I think the lumpy field walking over all of the balds did a number on my Achilles over the course of the roan highlands. As much as I tried not to, I Probably Overcompensated to protect right ankle. It’s also historically a tendon that gets angry on occasion, usually for no apparent reason. I Crossed over a few footbridges to the soundtrack of vireos and the occasional oven bird. I heard the ratatat of a woodpecker far off to my right. 

I eventually crossed forest service road and went up through more rhododendron tunnels. Thankfully they had decent footing. Sometimes the tunnels can involve walking through muddy trenches. A light breeze moved the trees high above me, but didn’t reach the ground. About a mile and a half in, I took off my fleece hat and rolled up my sleeves. My toes were still a little numb, but my hands had warmed up nicely. 

I walked in and out of tunnels through a thick, tall forest. I stopped to watch a towhee sing on a branch. Shortly afterward, I heard water rushing far off to my right. The Trail curved towards the sound and led me to a wide shallow stream with rhododendron creeping over the banks and through the middle.

I crossed the stream, tiptoed over a small mucky section and returned to the same terrain as the previous hour. 

I tried to employ the “woo woo”chi running/walking techniques where I imagined myself being pulled up from the torso and head rather than only being pushed forward by my feet hitting the ground. It made me stand up slightly more upright and use more of my glutes. As I walked, I considered how to explain gender issues on the blog and how personal to get while I felt periodic twinges in my left Achilles/inner heel. I’m worried that Oakland will spend time around the hiker world referring to me as “she/her” and Oakland will become so used to hearing the reference that she will begin to use the same pronouns for me. Oakland strictly uses they/them for me and happens to be one of the first people to ever do so since we met in 2016. It would be hearbreaking and frankly, sickening, to hear her start using the wrong pronouns. I‘ve expressed my fear to her and she assured me that she is aware of the issue and would do her best to hold steady to the “they/them” framework while the rest of the world genders the CRAP out of me using the wrong pronouns. It’s hard to explain why it would be so devastating for Oakland to make the switch, but I will give it a shot. Imagine if someone that you love started referring to you with a personal quality that you just absolutely don’t identify with at all. I’ll attempt to give a neutral example: say you don’t identify as someone who is extroverted. You adamantly consider yourself introverted, but your loved one starts referring to you as such an extrovert to you and to everyone around you, and every time you hear it, it just doesn’t match your internal sense of self.

In actuality, being misgendered is far more complicated and more distressing, and I can’t easily correct everyone who does it. Many of the people I come into contact with out here are not familiar with the concept of “non-binary” and “gender neutral.” To correct them would elicit a conversation in which I get put under a microscope about a concept which isn’t very relatable for most people. That’s about as personal I will get, but I will say that it is a paper cut that gets reopened every single day, dozens of times a day, by people who I know aren’t intentionally trying to harm me but have a negative impact nonetheless.

I crested a small hill and heard the roar of water nearby. 50 yards away, I came to a body of water called hardcore cascades. They didn’t seem to warrant such an intense moniker, especially considering the falls I saw later in the day, but it was a pretty spot. 

A little while later, I happened to catch a bar of LTE signal, so I sat in middle of the trail and made hostel reservations for Damascus. A bunk for my first night and a private room for the next two nights after Oakland’s arrival. Then I decided to go hog wild with time and battery, and I called Oakland while she fed a thousand cats during her early morning routine. I decided to also call the rabbit hole and reserve a bunk at that hostel, which is my Thursday evening destination. I tried to continue talking to Oakland as I walked, but I lost signal almost immediately.

As I walked, I saw what looked like a creature path towards a small stream. The trail crossed over the water. I stopped to watch a bird and heard a stick break off to my left. I didn’t see any movement so I walked a few steps until I heard the distinct crunch of leaves and turned to see the dark shape of a small bear making its way up the hillside across a small gully. I watched it while also scanning the woods and listening for the sound of more bears because it looked small enough to potentially have parental company. Sadly, it was too far away and too small to even bother trying to get a picture or video. 

My signal returned enough to call Oakland and share the news about the bear, but it quickly dropped again. I spent the rest of the morning hiking over a rollercoaster of a trail with some climbs being sharper than others.

At some point I stopped to check water sources, and I found that I’m in a 3 mile stretch with only an annoying source at the next shelter. I saw movement in a tree and found a black and white woodpecker peeking at me through the branches. He squawked and flew away. 

After about an hour of all the same terrain, I came to a set of switchbacks with a small picture window view. It led me down to Moreland gap shelter, which looked like an old softball dugout because of the cinderblocks.

Brownie and dizzy left me a note about a twin bed available above their queen at their hostel tonight. I heard people coming and felt the urge to rush away because I’d been walking for 4 hours without having seen any humans. I didn’t rush to leave, but I did manage to walk away before the other hikers arrived. I turned around halfway up the calf straining hill after shelter and saw someone’s arm putting things down at the picnic table. I turned back towards the trail and continued up the hill tht was followed by a short flat stretch and then an even longer hill. 

I kept hearing noises in the woods. I saw bear scat but no bears and heard the occasional caw of crows. I heard another large bird I didn’t recognize. I wondered if it was a raptor fussing with the crows. The seating options dried up right as I decided it was time to eat, and it took me 15 minutes of mostly uphill walking to find a suitable log.

I sent a few texts with my bit of service and ate the usual fair to the constant sound of birdsong. I was low on water and reminded myself to drink a bunch when I get to the next source. I aired out my feet and did a bit of massage on my left heel as a light breeze moved through the trees. I actually had to put on a long sleeve shirt because the breeze had a bite to it. After lunch, I peed next to a substantial pile of bear scat that I hadn’t noticed when I sat on my lunch log. I texted with my hiking friend Runa. She completed a 42 mile in 24 hours challenge and was now taking a short break in Damascus. I felt impressed and simultaneously envious of the accomplishment and the company she had. It had been a lonely day and imagining the camaraderie of such an undertaking with 5 other hikers made today feel even lonelier.

I left my lunch spot and walked along the breezy ridge. I could see mountain views through the trees. I wondered if I should have left my long sleeve layer on because the breeze continued to feel cool. The trail cut through a steeply banked hillside covered with ferns and a fair number of blow-downs. 

I Skipped over a very slow water source and resigned myself to walking off trail at a tent site a little ways up, but then I came to a small spring where someone had positioned a rhododendron leaf to make a perfectly functional flow of water. I drank an entire bottle and topped off both bottles while swatting at gnats. Then came a gentle downhill over pine needles. 

I walked through a small meadow past the campsite and up a hamstring burning incline that leveled off after a few minutes into a breezy gentle roller coaster. I crossed a dirt road and took a quick pee break in an irrigation cut out. Then I walked through a small stand of trees where there was evidence of fire. The trail cut through power lines with tiny hazy view. It was far hotter in the sun. The trail took me back into the woods, but there was only partial shade, so I stopped to put on sunscreen.

I passed a rangy, tall mountain laurel in full bloom as the trail climbed into even less shaded woods with a strong breeze. The path was peppered with mountain laurel blossoms. I went through a sunny stretch with hazy mountain views and a tufted titmouse (at least I think so based on the shape).

The trail finally went downhill and through a series of switchbacks surrounded by rhododendrons and boulders. I continued to feel lonely and anxious about camping by myself again. The trail dropped lower into greener and shadier woods with a light breeze. 

I stopped to check my elevation map and was about to put poles against a tree when I noticed a double web and this crazy colored spider.

Needless to say I did not stop there. I walked a few feet up and stood in the trail with my poles jammed against my abdomen to keep them from falling over. It’s mostly downhill from here until the falls, which is good because I was getting overheated. 

I sat on a boulder with this view and ate a snack. I checked my voicemail and had a message from brownie offering a bunk in their room tonight. I had thought they were joking in the shelter log, but apparently she was serious. The offer is tempting for the company but it monkeys with my timeline more than I want so I decided to decline. I finished my snack and put my brace and shoes back on. I wasn’t sure how to get in touch with brownie because she clearly called me from the house phone at their hostel and I didn’t have enough service to return the call. That makes me think she doesn’t have WiFi or cell service, which seems odd.

The trail got rockier and buggier as it lost elevation. The gnats were driving me crazy, so I put my earbuds in to deter them. The heavy air didn’t move, which gave the bugs license to throw themselves at my face. Footing devolved into a rocky mess and I had to force myself to slow down.

It finally eased up a bit as I passed a farm building that reminded me of tobacco drying sheds in NC. I smelled something sweet and found that this white flower was the source. 

I crossed the road and walked through a trailhead parking. I finally made eye contact with the first human all day when I saw a guy day hiking with his kid. I Left a note for brownie and dizzy on the opposite pole of a note from someone else. It seems archaic, but it often works!

I walked along a wide flat shell trail high above the banks of the rushing laurel fork river. I took a quick pitstop to dump a scoop of water over my head and wrists. Then I crossed a footbridge with a family hanging out in the water and made my way up a set of stone steps.

I went through a clearly man made rocky pass that opened back up to forest in which I found a smidge of signal. I sat on a rock and texted with Oakland for a few minutes. She’s in her last all day faculty meeting of the year! 

A Few day hikers passed by while I finished eating the package of fruit snacks I’d started at lunch. The Bugs were too much for me to loiter, so I donned my pack and continued towards the falls. Much of the steep descent consisted of Stone steps, as I’d mentally predicted when I saw the ease of the path from the trailhead and the dozens of day hikers making their way back from the falls.

There were a few rocky flats between steps that made for messy footing. When I finally made it to the falls, An older couple had the place almost to themselves, save for a man I didn’t notice at first because he was sitting at the far edge of the rocky area closest to the falls.

Laurel Fork Falls were beautiful. I didn’t stick around long after taking a few pictures and a video to capture the rush of the water.

On my way back to my pack, I met Waterhog, a thru hiker with 3 teenage kids who are accompanying him. I told him the brief version of my hike, and he asked for my finish date, which as it turns out, might be the same as his. He and his kids have already done VA so they will soon jump up to harpers ferry and continue walking higher miles than me. We had a brief discussion about some of the northern sections in which I assured him that he could do more than 12 miles a day in the whites, but it would hurt.

The trail was a rockpile immediately after the falls. It followed the water and swung around the side of a rock face. Then came a 5 minute stretch of sublime easy walking followed by a climb up and over more rocks.

A short descent led me down to follow the river. I decided to stop at the first decent chance I have for a tenting spot. The place I chose wasn’t perfect, but it’s not supposed to rain which is good because it’s a concave spot. You’d think I would learn my lesson after the puddle of ash gap. There wasn’t any space for other people except in an area that had glass, which pretty much assured that I would camp alone. I didn’t have the energy to keep walking for a bigger camp site, and there was phone signal where I stood, so I Called it quits. After combing my site for glass, I set up my tent.

I Double checked the weather and ate some sesame honey cashews from my dad and stepmom because I was starving. Then I Walked down the trail to figure out bear line. What a disaster I am at throwing bear lines on high limbs. After 15 minutes of failed attempts, I finally settled for one that was totally adequate and slightly lower. There aren’t many options given the terrain. There’s a Fast flowing river to my left and a gully adjacent to steep inaccessible rocky hillside to the right of the trail.

After what felt like forever, I finally walked back to camp and got water for my dinner. Camping so close to water is such a luxury. I used my scoop to collect water from the fast moving laurel fork. Yes, I’m camped next to the same stream (river?) that I slept next to last night. I filtered two bottles worth of water and filled my sawyer bag. Then I kept Oakland company on her walk home because I had cell signal! It felt so different from last night to have a connection to someone. It made the woods seem less wild and frightening in a good way and I did not feel bad about sharing my attention with my surroundings and the phone. I put water on to boil and then I set up my food to rehydrate while I sat on a rock with my heels in the icy river water.

I checked the area for snakes before I sat down, a statement which dismayed Oakland. I also bemoaned where in the world I would poop in the morning because I don’t have any truly LNT options because of the terrain. River to the left of the trail and spring to the right of the trail means I might have to do what I imagine other people have done which is to use a small hidey hole in the rhododendrons right next to the campsite. There are large rocks here that I can use to cover it so an animal can’t dig it up. It’s the best I can do given that I’ve chosen to camp somewhere that one technically shouldn’t inhabit. 

I poured more of the kale crumbs into my dinner and the result was equally as good as the night before. I’m happy that I found a way to consume the food without just pitching it straight into my garbage ziplock. Oakland kept me company during dinner. I accidentally started brushing my teeth while we were on the phone because the signal was so good that it seemed like we were practically in the same place. Oakland laughed when I told her what I’d done. Then I walked down the trail and hung my food bag on my sub optimal limb.  Several day hikers passed me while I ate dinner. So many so that I finally stopped one of them to ask where he’d come from. I had apparently camped close enough to the trail that leads into Hampton, TN that foot traffic was still happening after 8pm. I was dismayed by the accessibility and needed somewhat false reassurance from Oakland that it would be okay. Her feelings weren’t false, but her certainty doesn’t actually have an impact on reality. She did make the good point that if harassment from locals was a problem, people would have made comments on guthook about having had issues. 

Oakland had dinner plans with her parents so she had to depart, with the caveat that her mom might want to call me so I could help clarify some pin locations for her giant AT map. I charged my phone in airplane mode to prep for an impending map session and setup my bed in the meantime. A little after 8, Oakland and her mom did in fact call me and we worked out the missing pins (and fixed a pin or two that had been relocated by a certain 4 year old who thought I should be in WV instead of GA).  Here’s Oakland pouring over the map while getting shelter information from me over the phone:

Then they went off to finish their dinner preparations, and I laid in my tent finishing the days notes while trying to catalog the noises I heard. I saw a flash of light around 9 and realized that the lightning bugs had made their nightly appearance. I tapped away on my tiny screen periodically looking up to see their flashes while the water roared and gurgled about 20 yards away from my tent. I’m finishing this to the water sounds, airplanes periodically passing overhead (scaring me because their rumble feels out of place), birds that are just barely audible over the river, and the occasional bug dive bombing my tent. 

Mile 407.9 to mile 422.2 (14.3) 

Total miles: 430.5 

Creature feature: so many chipmunks! dozens of butterflies, the tufted titmouse, oven birds, the woodpecker, lightning bugs, and the bear 

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