2019-Day 50: 500 mile flame azalea edition

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*REAL TIME UPDATE: we have reached narrows, VA and the next handful of posts will be brought you to from the public computers at the Iris Brammer Public Library. Thank you public libraries! I still don’t have the time and patience to comb through entries for typos or weird capitalization, so ignore those and focus on the pictures 🙂

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The smoke from the campfire made for a night of burning eyes but I managed to get a fair amount of sleep. I woke up around 3:20 and had to pee. there were just too many hours left before the final wake up time, so I crawled out of the tent and walked a few yards away taking care not to shine my red light directly at anyone’s tent. Oakland said she managed to cobble together two chunks of sleep which is not far from her usual pattern, so she fared okay. I felt bad getting out of the tent in the middle of the night but it had to be done. We both made visits to the privy, and we had a brief lesson on getting the bear bags down. Then came the great packing up process, which wasn’t much longer with two people.

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Oakland made friends with the little bundle of energy from last night. Her name is hank. The tent was nearly spotless because of the pine needle bed. We sat on the logs by the fire pit and ate breakfast while everyone else crowded around the picnic table and worked through their mornings. I tried not to judge snapshot for his pungent smell as he walked by on his way to the privy.  Hank’s owner somehow made a giant snare of two bear lines hung on the same branch and poor Lucas was one of the lines tangled around the stick used in her pct hang. We brushed our teeth and Oakland filtered water while I took care of my cup removal. I make it through the brunt of my period in town, which is A lucky coincidence.

It was a sunny and crisp morning, which made it hard to remove my puffy coat when the time came to close my compactor bag full of “must stay dry” items. Oakland checked water sources while I made a few notes and packed the final items in my bag. 

My legs burned on the walk back to trail head. At the intersection, I stopped to get debris out of my shoe and task rabbit (a code name because I want to leave her real trail name out of print) complained about the social dynamics with the group at the shelter. She said she had tired of their perpetually cheerful and vapidity.  She said in a mock perky voice fit for a texas cheerleader, “oh my god, my feet hurt so much.” We laughed at her imitation and commiserated with the “energizer bunny nothing matters who cares if we get into camp after dark and have to do everything in a sloppy mess” approach that none of us can seem to adopt, nor do we really want to. Task rabbit pulled ahead of us immediately and we were content to walk alone along the  narrow, breezy ridge. 

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We had the occasional tiny view of the ridge line to our right as we traversed the small spikes in elevation interspersed with flat rocky sections. The trail dropped down below the ridge and then took a series of tight Switchbacks around the sunny side of the mountain.

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We were passed by a SOBO group of teenagers scattered along the narrow trail. The we took a short climb over loose rocks up to another narrow and gusty ridge that was sunnier than the last one. 

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The trail eventually took us down a gradual hill that was lined with low, green coral like plants that also have titan like appendages. the picture I took of the spears is out of focus, but here’s the basic plant:

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The Trail Flattened out a bit and wound around little gullies. We Passed a piped spring and walked over soft pine needles towards a trail junction. Then we took a gentle downhill with a sea of ferns around us. 

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We Passed a small pond that had an adjacent campsite where someone had left a giant red cooler sitting upside down, as if to dry it out.

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We went through a series of rhododendron tunnels. I asked oakland to walk in front for a bit so I could give you a perspective of the tunnel: 

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The Woods finally opened up and Oakland took more pictures of orange mushrooms with the accompaniment of light birdsong and a strong breeze. We call this ergonomic nightmare the mushroom pose: 

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Around the two hour mark, we stopped at a nice wide log and took a ten minute break with copious snacks and bathroom breaks. The Occasional stick and leaf matter dropped from trees, causing both of our heads to turn because they sounded like approaching creatures.  

After our break, we came to an intersection with Virginia creeper. We dropped our packs and walked to the right to see raging water on the creeper bridge.

The AT Followed the creeper for about 3/4 of a mile over crushed gravel and a long wooden bridge. We were passed by a few bikes, all operated by friendly people saying good morning with bright voices.  

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The Trail took a left turn back into the woods and followed along another large creek. My Feet were immediately happier with the varied surface versus the solid wooden planking of the bridge and the crushed gravel of the creeper.

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We eventually took a right turn away from the large creek and wandered alongside a smaller stream, eventually narrowing back down into a rhododendron tunnel. 

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The trail turned into a somewhat consistent climb and we had to stop to remove long sleeve layers. We crossed a gravel road and snaked past many small streams among the rhododendrons. The woods finally opened up into terrain that seemed like we might have a bear sighting, but it wasn’t meant to be. We made it to lost mountain shelter a little afternoon where we found task rabbit already in the middle of her lunch our.  She said she’s having hard days of late because of the social situation and trying to outrun her pink blazer (the annoying but established nomenclature for when a man jumps the trail to follow a woman). She made a collective “we as older women are a rare breed” and I took the opportunity to volunteer that I’m even more rare because I don’t identify as a woman. She said “NB?” (i.e. non-binary) which I wasn’t expecting, and which was a relief. No questions. No explanations. Just acknowledgement. 

I shared my social angst from my 2017 hike in an effort to empathize with task rabbit. After we finished eating, we went to get water at the spring about a hundred yards away. A Section hiking SOBO Dude bro arrived while we were gone. We returned to hear him giving unsolicited advice to task rabbit while smoking a cigarette and being generally overbearing. In light of the alienating new arrival, oakland and i busied ourselves with packing up and left around the same time as task rabbit. She stayed ahead of us for a little while until we passed her as she stood in the trail talking to slackpackers she knew. 

We crossed a small road and went past neat rows of pines that I assume were planted. Task rabbit caught up with us and stopped for a brief exchange about the pines, then moved on. 

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We eventually went through a fence line and skirted the edge of a field where we saw a black and white woodpecker. A gaggle of teenagers came towards us as we approached log steps that took us higher into the field.

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On the other side of the field, we crossed a gravel road and into the woods to begin the never-ending ascent to buzzard rock. The footing was fine for awhile, but it eventually turned into a rock pile that just kept going up.

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The felt endless and contained no flat stretches or switchbacks. About halfway up, we took a short break on a nice sitting rock while the wind gusted through the trees. We eventually saw task rabbit on a switchback but then she pulled ahead again. We slowed down for a slew of flame azaleas rising out of the forest around us, many of which had a fungus I’ve seen before.

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I was so happy to show Oakland the vibrant orange blooms because I had been afraid they would all be past their prime by the time she joined me. After several more minutes of walking, we took a snack break on rocks just before the trail opened up. It was far too cold for taking breaks in the gusting wind of a field. 

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Then We climbed through a short meadow that had wizened fruit trees scattered about. The views started about a third of the way out of the woods. Here’s Oakland getting her first taste of the open views after a long day of rhododendron tunnels. 

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The wind whipped around us and made it difficult to take a video from just below the official view point. I was glad for the dry weather because it would have been miserable in the rain. Both of us were chilled after standing still for a few minutes so we put on our raincoats and fleece hats to help with the wind.

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I could hardly walk straight and kept getting knocked aside just enough to make my left foot plant off-kilter many times. I saw the long open trail that followed the field up near power lines and my heart sank.

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Thankfully Oakland pointed out that the AT cut right back into the woods. We laughed at the ridiculousness of the wind as we made our way across the rest of the open bald and into the woods. I took a video of it, but for some reason wordpress doesn’t want to convert it properly, so here’s a picture of oakland in the tall grass and a pano she took instead. 

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When we made it back into tree cover, The wind died down to a manageable amount but the rocks continued to be incessant with very short breaks (as in 5ft at a time). Oakland sported another of those rare lilies that I saw in the roan highlands. It’s hard to capture the spots on the inside without touching the flower and there are warnings against spreading fungus so I took a picture of two different lilies with different angles. 

We crossed several small streams and tried to decide whether to count on getting water at the tent site or to get the sure thing on the trail beforehand. Both of our feet hurt so we decided to risk it and get water at the tent site a mile away rather than carry the extra weight. This of course spurred a few jokes about how Oakland was already used to carrying too much water after her platypus goof from yesterday. 

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We emerged from the woods and crossed a rocky sandy path that had a dazzling array of flame azaleas on either side of the trail. There were also views of the mountains to our right. Oakland was as excited by the flame azaleas as I had hoped she would be and I couldn’t believe our luck with the sheer number of them. The trail crossed a wide gravel road and went up a small hill that led us to the tent site where task rabbit had already set up. We kept walking to see about the sites closer to the spring which turned out to be a single rocky, sloped site. I left Oakland there to work on filtering water while I went back to the other area to see about a better tent site. The options were pretty bad but we had one possible choice that was flatter and not quite as public. Oakland mentioned the desire to not be right next to the spring where everyone would tromp through, which was a good point. I couldn’t decide if the spot was actually better so I took over the water operation and Oakland went to get a second opinion. She came back and seemed convinced that we would be better off at the other site, so we grabbed all of our things and went back to it. 

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Oakland made fun of me as I pried rocks out of the ground. There were so many sharp edges that I worried about the tent bottom so I laughed along with her while I continued my grooming project. We managed to get a decent set up with little in the way of sloping. I then put together my bed while Oakland wandered around looking for bear line limbs. Then she set up her bed while I did the same. Task rabbit asked how I was and I replied, “overwhelmed” which unfortunately evoked a kind but off putting offer of help. There wasn’t anything I could delegate to task rabbit, so I said that I was good. I picked out a few mediocre options for bear lines among the poor choices available. As I walked back to our site, task rabbit offered some advice about efficiency. Specifically setting food to cook and then doing chores. I did my best not to get snippy with the obvious advice. Instead I said “you know that’s a great idea and I’ve done that a lot but tonight that’s not how things worked out.” 

Oakland and I sat on a mossy log just below our tent site and prepared our food. While it cooked Oakland helped me gather rocks for my 500 mile marker. The campsite is just past the 500 mile point! I made it out of pebbles because of their availability and because of the annoying rocks we had today. We both reveled in the joy of eating dinner (chili mac) and then had parts of payday and snickers bars for dessert after doing our dishes. Then we stood around brushing and flossing while we watched other people slowly trickle into the area. A trio of teenagers came through twice, both times with a speaker playing, which did not bode well for this evening’s quiet hours. 

After our evening hygiene came the task of throwing the bear line. We had both been too hungry to delay dinner with the dreaded task. We wandered around looking for limbs because my earlier choices now had campers beneath them. Oakland pointed out a really thick limb which I kindly rejected saying that it was thick enough for a bear to tap dance on. I explained the philosophy of using the smallest limb that would be strong enough to hold the food bag and not strong enough to hold a bear. We finally picked out a decent limb that unfortunately was very dead. I found that out by getting my line over the limb, giving it a good yank and pulling down the entire limb with a sharp crack. I shrieked and we both laughed at the disaster. The good news is I had cleared the zone to be able to get our lines on a much better branch. I made several tosses that all went too far left so I turned my body as I had the night before and finally made it on the limb. We attempted to put both bags on the same line but they were too heavy to string up together. Oakland threw her line while another hiker tossed his line over a limb that was far too large a few trees over. For a few minutes the only noises were the thunk of rock bags hitting the ground and the groans of hikers missing their branches. Oakland made a joke about it being a hiker soundtrack. After several tries, She finally got her line right next to mine at the same time that the other hiker successfully landed his line. It took some doing to keep them from getting tangled and Oakland kept managing to lose her stick, but we finally had both bags in the air without any entanglements. It was 7:54. Earlier I had made an exhausted comment about how we wouldn’t be in the tent until about 8pm. Oakland looked at me and said something to the effect of “you guessed it.”

We had a quick pooping lesson in the woods below our tent site. I showed Oakland the different postures one could use, how wide and deep to dig the hole and where to position herself over the hole. I also gave the tip to remove her TP from the ziplock BEFORE squatting down to get started. We had discussed the possibility of pre-digging our holes but neither of us had the stamina after the bear line fiasco. Instead, we each took another pee break and crawled into the tent to get warm and go to sleep. The temperatures have been pretty cool all day and they dropped even more during dinner. By the time we had our food bags hung, my fingers were going numb. As we got settled in our tent, we heard the gang from last nights shelter arrive. Oakland was baffled and horrified at how late they had arrived. She thanked me profusely for being the person who would help get us to the tent site at a reasonable hour. Because of our timing, we had scored a somewhat secluded tent spot with no fear of anyone building a fire or setting up next to us at some awful hour. 

The latecomers walked around talking loudly and being generally irritating. We forced ourselves to change shirts and take off bras. I removed the bandaid from the cut on my big toe which has been doing okay (I think I forgot to mention that I hit my toe on the shower in Damascus and got a nice little slice on the tip of my big toe). I showed Oakland a few basic foot and calf massages to do. It was a long and hard day for a second day out, and I wanted to make sure she didn’t get too stiff. The tent is fabulous in dry conditions but I continue to worry about how we will fare in the rain with the tight fit. Our gear and our bodies come close to all four sides of the mesh lining the outside edges of the tent. 

I’m finishing this to the sound of bass in the music being played somewhere nearby, someone walking around cursing with a headlamp on (it’s unclear what their damage is), a moderate breeze in the treetops, the squeak of sleeping pads, and Oakland’s heavy breathing because she fell asleep while I was writing.  

Mile 480.1 to mile 492.6 (12.5) 

Checklist total miles: 500.8 

Oakland total miles: 21.9 

Creature feature: the deer, the woodpecker, hank the cute dog, dark eyed juncos, and a spotted towhee 

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