June 29, 2019
I had a restless but fine night of sleep until about 5 in the morning. My hips ached, which made me toss and turn more than usual. My watch alarm went off at 5:40 for the sunrise mission. I flexed my toes and my ankles a bit before climbing out of the tent with my pee rag to take care of immediate needs. Then I grabbed my sitting pad and my headphones to keep the gnats out of my ears while I waited for the show. The far right edge of the mountain range was already bathed in a soft pink glow. I went back to the tent to tell Oakland that the sky was pretty so she could decide whether she wanted to get up for it. She decided to join me on the rocks and sat at our dinner spot while I stood closer to the edge to get a better view of the far right. The light slowly started to highlight the clouds around us in cotton candy pink. A light breeze blew and we heard a far away woodpecker already getting down to business. Here’s a series of moments from the sunrise:
Oakland eventually left to make her visit to the proverbial rhodies while I continued staring at the horizon taking 93 pictures of the same view. Then I too went to the rhodies where the digging was rocky and difficult. After making do (pun intended), I fetched Oakland, and we grabbed our food bags (another successful night!) and went back to the tent to pack up. Glide, who hadn’t emerged for sunrise, had already packed up her tent at that point. She sat on the rocks eating cold oatmeal and chocolate chips. We eventually joined her with our breakfast bars. The gnats were already abominable even with the light breeze.
Glide left about 30 minutes before we did and wished us a good hike. Right as we were about to brush our teeth and take care of foot prep, two older hikers arrived. One of them was a shuttle driver (or maybe a friend) and the other was a section hiker doing a day hike. He asked if we were thru hiking and I told him we were LASHers, which we had to explain. He told us about his bungled through hike that didn’t work out because of chronic knee pain almost from the start. Then he asked about the infamous PA terrain. I warned him not to get excited by flat elevation profiles. He headed out and we continued our morning routine, leaving bug central around 8am. We weren’t in any particular hurry because it’s a relatively shorter day today. On our way down the short spur trail we noticed that Scott, the hiker we’d met the night before had already packed up and hit the road. Why would you bother camping so close to an incredible view without actually stopping to LOOK AT IT before you leave?
The morning started out with a somewhat flat walk through an odd forest with ferns and high grass but low sparse trees. Rocks sprung up not long after starting, but they weren’t consistent. The trail took us over a series of small ups and downs. Just past a grassy campsite, Oakland stopped me to point out a bird that I had stepped over without knowing it. It was light gray and blended right into the sandy, rocky trail. We assumed it was a fledgling. I worried about whether it would be okay and Oakland told me that we wouldn’t ever really know, but hopefully that would be the case. I decided not to take its picture because I didn’t want to frighten it more than we already had by standing around staring.
We continued over rocks and eventually began a long descent. At first we walked through tall grass that covered the path and prevented us from seeing where our feet landed. The trail consisted of triangular rocks and concave lumps carved out of running water and other hikers’ footsteps. We both cursed the footing, which eventually switched over to a slightly wider trail of dry sand and loose rocks for quite awhile. We heard a loud noise. I looked down into the woods and spied the section hiker from this morning lurching over in a sneeze. When we caught up with him, I asked him facetiously if he was having fun yet because he looked as bedraggled as I felt on the inside. His answer was decidedly no.
We all went down the hill together, with me at the helm. We pulled away from the section hiker almost immediately. The trail narrowed with laurels closing in on either side of us.
The path finally finally flattened out a bit and turned into a sandier trail with switchbacks. The Trail opened up into wider woods then narrowed and turned into red sand and loose rocks with heat radiating off the ground. I remarked on the number of laurels around us. Oakland laughed and said that we were heading to laurel creek shelter later today. The trail narrowed down again with the addition of blooming rhododendrons.
As we approached our two hour hiking mark, there was nowhere to sit for a break so we ended up hiking all the way to the next shelter where we ran into Scott for a hot second before he continued north. There was ample seating in the form of a park bench and a picnic table. Here’s Oakland testing out the amenities:
We sat at the table with our shoes off and ate snacks with the sound of rushing water right around the corner. The section hiker showed up and immediately started talking shop about all of the sections he’s done and how he’s doing them. His goal is to hike the AT by way of almost exclusively doing day hikes and avoiding camping simply because he doesn’t like it, not because he’s physically incapable of doing so. He was nice but exhausting because he didn’t really leave much room for others, and he didn’t take social cues as to when either of us needed a break. I tried to write notes while giving him the minimum required responses.
We finally extricated ourselves from the section hiker whose name I didn’t get and continued north for about 50 yards where we stopped to filter water at a beautiful rhododendron-lined stream. The section hiker passed us wordlessly, and I silently thanked the universe for the break from his chatter.
After our water stop, we followed the creek for a few minutes. Then we slowly wound to the right with the sound of the water fading over our shoulders. We entered a section with a lot of blow downs and markedly hotter air. The sides of the trail were covered in more mountain laurel and brushy ground cover. I looked up at some point because I’d heard a sound in the brush but I couldn’t find the source so I dismissed it. A second later, Oakland spotted a doe standing about 40 yards away staring at us and swishing its tail. We walked a few feet and the deer trundled towards us as if to follow, but it stopped short and continued munching on its snacks. We eventually crossed a small road and went into blooming rhododendrons again. The trail then crossed a large stream with a sturdy footbridge.
I saw a flash of movement as I stood in the middle of the bridge admiring the water (today’s top picture). I looked up to see a small woodpecker land on a nearby tree trunk. Sadly it flitted out of sight before I could show it to Oakland. We walked along with a cool breeze and the trail quickly transitioned to a burn zone with a lot of blowdowns. Thus began what was to be a very steamy 2 mile climb.
The trail narrowed into another laurel tunnel with the occasional breeze and an abundance of pine needles underfoot. As we approached lunchtime there were no sitting areas to be had and little promise of anything based on the narrowness of the trail. We eventually crossed a small mucky stream that had a good sitting rock but far too many bugs. We kept climbing back into dry trail with terrible banking. We eventually found a rocky area that seemed good enough. We plopped our bags down and marveled at the sweat stains on our shirts (headphones are a gnat deterrent).
We were About 5 minutes into making food/eating when another one of those dreaded hornets buzzed onto the scene. It hovered at a sinister distance making quick darting movements that scared the poop out of me. It also aggressively dive-bombed any other flying creature around us. I was so worried we would get stung in the process of the hornet going after a fly. The section hiker eventually passed us on our lunch perch. I asked him what the buzzing insect was, but he didn’t really know. We made supportive remarks to him because he only had about 0.7 miles to go and he had slowed to a crawl because of the hill. After he left, I finally had to move across the trail because I couldn’t handle the fear of the buzzing menace. I kept my eye on it from several yards away. All was fine for a few minutes, but it came too close to me again causing me to bolt out of my seat and screech in fear. I declared myself done with the tyranny. Of course, after I yelped, the damn thing left. We packed up anyway because it was time to get moving again. Somewhere shortly after lunch, we covered Oakland’s 200 mile mark!
We continued up the rocky hill until we reached the gravel road that the Section hiker had already departed. Then we went straight up for half a mile. Thankfully there were rocks and roots to create a semblance of steps instead of an Achilles straining angle. Sweat swayed from my chin as we made our way up the hill. Near the top, I slammed the bottom of my right foot hard against a rock that I hadn’t seen. Thankfully, the impact scared me more than it hurt me.
We finally made it to the top of the hill and came to flatter section that unfortunately was a stealthy rock field. My feet started to get sloppy and were throbbing. We heard distant thunder for the third day in a row. When I spied a large log up ahead, I declared myself ready to stop for a few minutes despite the impending rain. Oakland agreed it was time to take an early break to give our brains brain and our feet some rest. I took a quick pee break before I joined Oakland on the log to eat snacks. The day’s snacks consist of our usual cliff bar eaten one half at a time, a bag of white cheddar cheezits with salted cashews, and a bag of Welch’s fruit snacks for our daily dose of carnuba wax. Thunder continued to boom, but my phone wouldn’t cooperate when I tried to check the weather. The signal has been pretty wretched the last couple of days leaving me out of touch with family and very happy to have Oakland with me in person. I did manage to get a quick text out to my mom before the signal tanked again. We stood up to continue our tracks north. I thought I heard footsteps in the leaves (bear??), but nothing came of the sound in the short time it took us to put on our packs.
We followed the rocky shit pile about a half mile north to the side trail for Kelly’s knob, which was an outcropping of flat-topped boulders. It would have been a great view were it not for an overgrown stand of trees on the other side of the boulders. They blocked just enough of the horizon to make it not worth the treacherous steps necessary to go all the way out onto the boulders. Instead, we gawked at the thunder clouds overhead and made our way back to the trail.
The sky had darkened considerably in the last 20 minutes, and I thought for sure we would get rained on before we could make it the 1.2 miles to the shelter. I was especially certain of that when I saw how much rubble lay scattered on the descent from Kelly’s knob. There were views of blowdowns and scrubby ground cover to accompany the sliding and toe stubbing that occurred on the way down to the shelter. Every so often the trail would flatten out and get sandy as we went through especially dense laurel sections, but for the most part, it was an unfortunately graded downhill with no switchbacks to speak of. The good news of the moment was diminishing thunder claps and a welcome lack of rain. The last half mile felt fifty times more endless than usual. Poor Oakland kept taking steps that resulted in rocks rolling under feet, which subsequently made her take pounding steps to catch her balance. Both of our feet were like cartoon limbs that pulsed red after a heavy blow.
We finally made it to the blue-blazed shelter trail around 3:45pm. The shelter stood about a hundred yards off trail and was surrounded by ample pine needle tenting sites tucked into rhododendrons. We dropped our packs and conferred on sites, picking one that was big enough for a Mini Cooper because that was our privilege as the first arrivals. We set up the tent in about 4 minutes flat and did some adjusting of the poles to take pressure off the seams of the bathtub floor.
Then we went over to a tree we had both identified as having a decent food limb. I tried my hand at the high and awkwardly angled toss first. I bungled it repeatedly and became embarrassed and frustrated, both of which definitely made it easier to actually throw well (read: sarcasm). We finally decided to let Oakland try while I went looking for other options. I heard her make a few tosses, bouncing off the limb itself on like the 3rd try. I went down towards the water and came back almost immediately because the trees were mostly rhododendrons. Oakland managed to get the line on the limb after only about 5 minutes of trying. She suggested she try to throw the second line closer to the trunk and i said tersely, “no I want to do it because I’m embarrassed that you got the other one and I couldn’t.” She gave me the rope without asking questions or fighting me on my needless comparisons. I said out loud that I knew I was being ridiculous and I felt even more ridiculous for being aware of my irrationality and incapable of reigning it in. She sat on a log behind me and quietly waited while I missed over and over again. Some misses were close and others were absurdly far from the mark. Every now and then Oakland would pop up and retrieve the rock bag for me. I finally got so upset that I asked her to leave. I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me, but I do know that tears in your eyes also don’t make it easier to throw a bear line. Oakland went over to the tent to set up her bedding. Then she came over to say she was down to the stream to get water. She asked if I wanted her to get mine and I declined, reaching almost complete shut down mode. When she left, I made throw after throw, getting the line on the intended limb right against the trunk (aka in a completely useless position) no less than 5 times. I felt like a joke and I was so ashamed at how inept I was at throwing the line. This sent me down a pretty wicked and global shame spiral that whirled in my head as I tossed the rock bag for about 35 minutes. So much so that I had given myself rope burn on my right index finger. Oakland returned from the stream looking freshly washed with wet hair and a full supply of water. I finally left the rock bag and rope on the ground and said “I give up.” She asked if there was anything she could do for me and my only response was for her to let me be a mess, which she has always been good at. I crumpled onto the edge of the shelter, curled my knees up to my chest and sobbed. I couldn’t figure out what in the world was SO wrong. I puzzled through my emotions and decided that the feeling of being a joke and wanting to hide was very close to the home of feeling like a joke when I try to explain my gender identity to people and I feel like people think I’m making it all up because the way I experience my gender isn’t something that can be SEEN by others. I get seen and labeled as female dozens if not hundreds of times a day and it takes a toll. The best I can figure is that the shame of the rope morphed into the shame of not fitting into the binary box. That coupled with physical exhaustion and also being stupefied as to why I couldn’t make that goddamned throw resulted in my biggest meltdown to date. Here’s a picture of a frog from earlier in the day to give you a break from my misery:
I heard Oakland thunking the rock bag against the tree, which meant she was pretty close to getting it, But I got up to search for a backup option anyway. She did in fact make the throw in less than 10 minutes. I walked over from the tree I’d been considering and asked if her she’d gotten the line on. She said yes and I said great as I avoided her eyes and walked over to my pack, which sat next to the shelter. I pulled out my water filter and my bottles with the intention of going to get water. I wanted to borrow Oakland’s little daypack for the trek so I turned around to head over to her and managed to hit my head on the corner of the shelter at full force. Instead of shouting, which is what I usually do when I hit my head like that, I threw my water stuff down and sat at the picnic table to cry for the third time in the hour. Then I walked over to Oakland and told her that hitting one’s head makes everything *all the better.* I apologized for my continued meltdown and told her that I was hanging out in a pretty intense shame spiral that had gone global. I said I wasn’t sure when it would get better, but that I was trying my best. She gave me a hug and collected her water bag for me. Then I went down to the stream like a zombie and tried my best to keep it together long enough to filter water and give my arms, face and hair a decent rinse. By the time I got back, I was no less upset but I was determined not to make Oakland miserable. I zombied through my bed setup while she sat on a log with closed eyes and the sun on her face. I wanted to curl up and go to sleep, skipping dinner altogether, but I knew that would be a big mistake. Instead, I suggested we play golf while we waited for our food to cook. Oakland retrieved the cards and we went over to the picnic table with our dinner wares. Thankfully during all of this, no one had arrived at the shelter. We boiled water and fought to keep clear of the puffs of cheese dust emanating from our dinner ziplocks. I feel like one day a bear is going to make a visit to us because of that damn cheese powder. It’s so good, but it gets everywhere.
After we prepped our food, we played golf for the 12 minutes of cooking time while I also tried my best to articulate my breakdown to Oakland so she wouldn’t be in the dark, and so I wouldn’t be compelled to hide from her. I explained it as the rope tossing being the trigger for releasing the “shame dam” and the shame, much like water, took the path of least resistance straight to the part of myself that is most visible and most painful out here in the land of people who only perceive me as female. This wasn’t Oakland’s first time around this particular block, so she responded with empathy and compassion and assured me that she was not crazy for putting up with me. On this, we disagree.
After playing several rounds of golf, We ate a new Mary Jane meal called cheesy noodles with sugar snap peas. It was SO GOOD. Totally worth the cloud of cheese dust. We split a packet of tuna for protein and then did our dishes after reveling in the tastiness of basically eating macaroni and cheese for dinner. We each had a few chocolate chips and I had a mini snickers, grateful that my appetite had returned after the meltdown. Then we brushed our teeth and went over to the tree to hang our bags. They are both unfortunately close to small limbs with leaves that seem like a drive-thru for small creatures, but we didn’t have a lot of options to choose from and we certainly weren’t going to re-throw the bags. At that point, we were grateful the limb had put up with hoisting two bags onto it. Then we both expressed a need to visit the privy. Oakland asked me to go first so I grabbed my TP and headlamp.
When I crossed the threshold of the fully enclosed privy I felt a wisp of spider web hit my face. That dictated a quick inventory of the resident spiders. There are pretty much always SOME spiders in the privy but they tend to be clustered in the corners and small enough to ignore. I shined my light in the far corners and then pointed the beam overhead to my right where I spied the second biggest spider I have ever seen in person. Its eyes gleamed in the white light as it lay spread out on the wooden beam. I yelled holy shit! And Oakland immediately called out to see if I was okay. I shouted back that there was a massive spider in the privy. She crawled out of the tent and came over to look. When I shined the light on the spider for her, she immediately jumped down from the steps and said NO. I laughed as she said NO. WHY. and continued to exclaim over the size of the spider. Needless to say, neither of us went inside the privy again. We decided on opposite directions to travel and dug holes to take care of business. Then we went back to the privy to get a picture of what Oakland started calling Wolfie. Keep in mind that the spider is sitting on a 2×4 piece of wood so it’s easily as big as my hand.
We finally got into the tent around 8pm. We changed into our evening clothes and removed our smelly sweaty socks. Oakland’s feet officially smell almost as bad as mine. Small leaf swishing sounds came from the far right of our tent. I felt confident that it was birds rustling in the leaves based on the number I’d seen earlier, but I finally had to go make sure for myself. I put on my shoes and walked a ways into the brush, bending down to see if I could spy the dark shape of a bear anywhere in the woods. I found nothing so I went back to the tent and continued writing my notes while Oakland settled in for her first sleep of the night. We have the shelter area all to ourselves tonight, which is good given the breakdown I had but less than ideal when it comes to the false sense of security that other humans can bring to the night. I’m finishing this to the sound of the occasional plop in the woods, the distant rushing sound of water, a few birds working the late shift, Oakland’s breathing, and a whippoorwill that just decided to make an entrance.
Mile 664.1 to mile 674.8 (10.7)
Checklist total miles: 683.6
Oakland total miles: 204.2
Creature feature: a deer that seemed as if it might follow us but changed its mind, a couple of frogs, one of which I’ve never seen before, the GIGANTIC WOLF SPIDER, brown thrashers, oven birds, the small woodpecker, blue headed vireos, the fledgling, and the blasted whippoorwill