2019-Day 68: keffer oak & rock slabathon edition

IMG_6874June 30, 2019

It was another hot and restless night for both of us. A breeze blew through the treetops but it didn’t really make it down to tent level. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I took off my long sleeve layer and kept my arms out of my sleeping bag. I was awake around 5:20 and my watch alarm, which I had forgotten to turn off, sounded at 5:40. Oakland was already awake so it didn’t really matter. She began rustling around readying herself for a visit to the great outdoors. Rather than tromp through the safety but hassle of the rhodies, she decided to risk the spider cave and went to the privy. Apparently she had to use her trowel to remove spider webs at the top of the open toilet seat. When I received this information, I said “NO” and shook my head. I had no intention of using the privy to begin with, but that sealed the deal. I put on my socks and ankle brace and crawled out of Oakland’s tent door because mine was covered in daddy long leg spiders that I didn’t feel like facing just yet. I wandered through the trees, occasionally hitting the sticky silk of spider webs and found a spot far away from the shelter and the tent. The ground was full of roots, so it was difficult to make a decent cat hole. Once that was taken care of, I retrieved our food bags, which is a part of the process I CAN manage. Then we shuffled around changing clothes and packing up our gear. The bottom of the tent was pristine again thanks to the pine needles. Such a luxury. 

We sat at the picnic table and had breakfast, during which I discovered that somewhere along the way my mileage math had gotten off and had been that way for many days. This is the downside of being stubborn about including the approach trail: math. I fixed a few days’ worth of totals while Oakland went back to the spider cave. Then we brushed our teeth and filtered water with a light breeze and sunny skies overhead. 

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The morning started with a short descent to the stream, which we eventually crossed amidst blooming rhododendrons and large crooked rock slabs.

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Then we wound through more rhododendrons and went up a flight of stone steps. Oakland said she wasn’t sure how the terrain correlated to a map that said we were meant to be going down. Ah the complexities of guthook. 

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Then the trail took us through pines and laurel over soft footing with the occasional attack rock. The rasping sound of dry flies periodically filled the steamy air. Oakland calls them the hot weather bug. It was only 8:30 and it felt like midday temperatures. The trail was a rollercoaster for a little while.

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We could hear a cow braying in the distance. We eventually spied an empty green pasture to our left. Shortly thereafter, the trail opened into pines and blooming rhododendrons with soft light and birdsong and the occasional purple wildflower that reminds me of the Fraggles (today’s top picture). We finally popped out into rolling farmland and walked along a mercifully mowed path through pastures. The trill of red winged blackbirds filled the air along with the occasional sound of a passing car.

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We curved through the pasture and went into a small stand of pines where we enjoyed shade at the cost of dodging poison ivy. We caught a glimpse of cows grazing in the neighboring pasture.

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Then we went down to road level and walked over bog boards across highway 42 where we saw a note from task rabbit’s boyfriend saying he went to find beer and ice.

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At that hour and those temperatures, the thought of beer turned my stomach, which I know isn’t a common long distance hiker reaction. It seems like most other hikers would have happily plopped down along the roadside and thrown back any beverage that wasn’t water. After spying the note, we went up hill through another field where I saw a new orange flower and tiny orange butterflies.

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The Trail then edged the perimeter in the shade and headed down to a creek. I heard a deer clomping off to our left and watched it crossed the trail 50 yards ahead of us. We popped out of the field to cross over a stream and then back into the woods. We decided to take a snack break on a rock in the shade of a trail-side parking lot rather than at the stealth campsite where we had planned a water stop. The dry flies kicked up again, as did a nice strong breeze. We were soaked in sweat, so the breeze was extra cooling.

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We got up after a short break and walked only a few yards to the water, not having realized we were quite so close to it. We dropped our packs, filled our bottles and each collected half a sawyer bag to help compensate for the 9 mile water carry between this point and Niday shelter, our evening destination. Then came a persistent uphill that led us past a crumbling wooden structure that looked and smelled like a livestock lean to, complete with a nearby gigantic cow patty. 

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We continued onward through another turnstile fence that led us past the second largest oak tree on the trail, the keffer oak. (The Dover oak is the largest, which I passed on my 2017 Hike). 

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We entered a field with rolled hay bales which Oakland enjoyed. I can’t remember which one it was, but I know that one of the zig zagging fences we went through in this area had thickets of poison ivy on all sides of our ankles. We both cursed the trail as we edged past, trying our best not to brush the devil plant. 

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After admiring the hay bales, we went back into the woods for more climbing (and sweating). We heard a clattering and looked up to see a spotted fawn and its mother bounding away. We continued trudging through the pines, saying little because of the heat and the distance between us (I tend to pull ahead on the steeper hills). We occasionally paused so Oakland could take mushroom pictures in ergonomically questionable postures:

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The sky darkened and the wind picked up as we climbed a series of steps consisting of both logs and rocks. Fat drops of water fell from the sky not five minutes after I said “we’re going to get rained on.” The rain felt cold on my skin and I dreaded the prospect of getting soaked even though I had been boiling a few minutes earlier. I searched the large boulders around us hoping to find one with a ledge we could duck under, but no such luck. 

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We arrived at the top of a hill and I pulled over to a slightly drier spot under tree cover to check the weather. Thunderstorms until 12:15, which wasn’t much longer. Not the worst prediction. We each took a quick pee break and ate a bite of bar to help tide us over until the rain ended and we could stop for a proper lunch. As the rain subsided, we saw a short side trail to a rock with an obstructed view. I decided it wasn’t worth the wet climb so we moved on. Less than two minutes later, we reached power lines with similar and more open views. I also saw the sparkly little pink flower again (not pictured because I wasn’t in the mood to fight with the focus on my phone). 

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Around 12:15, We found a good lunch log and made ourselves at home. I had to put my long sleeve on to combat the drop in body temperature, which had my fingers on the verge of turning white. We discussed our day and both agreed that it was tiring. I lamented our pace, which seemed slower than slowww. I find it frustrating when the effort I’m putting in doesn’t get me anywhere at a reasonable rate. Oakland doesn’t suffer from such mental maladies. 

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A little less than half a mile after our lunch spot, we walked through a series of dilapidated stone cairns, one of which had a snail friend making quite the traverse. According to guthook, there is debate as to whether the formations are memorials and structures that were used as apple silos for cider making (this seems more likely to me). We walked along an open ridge in dappled sunlight and thick ground cover, which occasionally consisted of a succulent-type plant that I of course couldn’t keep myself from photographing.

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After what felt like forever, we finally passed the shelter turn off that roughly marked our halfway point for the day.  After the side trail, the ridge narrowed and turned into boulder slabs mixed with narrow grassy areas. In one such grassy stretch, a large garter snake raced across the trail.

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To add insult to injury, poison ivy grew in many of the cracks between slabs. I said to Oakland “this is good training for Maine.” Maybe it’s better that we don’t hike in the Shenandoahs before Maine. I feel like they would lull Oakland into a false sense of ease before getting sideswiped by the bouldering nonsense of Maine. We Stopped for a few views and soldiered on through the blazing sun.

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At one point, I heard a slight rustle of leaves and peered into the brush to spot the midsection of a skinny black snake. It was about 2.5 feet long and motionless in the brush. Then came more diagonal rock slabs with a few grassy breaks and back to slabs. My feet got increasingly sore and my ankle didn’t care for the angles we had to walk on. I shared pointers for navigating the nonsense every so often for which Oakland expressed thanks. 

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After making it over the brunt of the ridge, I really wanted to take a break, but the sky had darkened again and I didn’t know what to expect from the descent in front of us, so we kept moving. I didn’t want to be caught on slabs in the rain if we could help it. Two different Guthook commenters had mentioned seeing large rattlesnakes in the area we were approaching, so I walked with an eagle eye for poison ivy, snakes, and avoiding missteps on pointy rocks. We finally reached the eastern continental divide sign and began the 3ish mile descent to the shelter, which started with more slabs.

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Once it seemed like the skies weren’t going to leak again, we took a snack break on a mossy rock a little off the trail. There were copious large black ants to contend with as we worked our way through snacks in the still air. I took off my brace and both of my shoes to let my feet throb in the open air. Oakland did the same while also keeping an eye on a neighboring spider hanging out on its thick web. From our break spot, we walked over soft footing for a bit and then rock hopped through a dry laurel and pine forest that reminded me of upstate New York.

It eventually switched over to a flat section covered in loose dark gray shale that sounded like walking on broken dinner ware. Then came yet another switch to sandy and open pines with views of the mountain range to our right. After several rounds of rock steps on the narrow trail, it widened and led us through more pines and laurel. We were both drenched in sweat because of the humidity, the temperature and the lack of shade over the last mile or so. We headed down through laurels over loose rocks, much like yesterday’s rubble. I eventually couldn’t help myself, and I stopped the check the map. We were within spitting distance of the shelter! 

We walked down past the wooden structure (sorry, I always forget to take pictures of them) and put our bags on the ground. Two other packs sat in the vicinity, likely belonging to people getting water who intended to keep hiking. Based on the time (5:30pm) I theorized that they were classic late evening NOBOs but their AT tags were numbers in the low 200s (when you go through Amicalola and Harpers Ferry you get a hang tag with a hiker number). That number didn’t make sense with our location. As it turns out, the bags belonged to mother-daughter SOBO flip floppers who had hiked down from NY state. They asked us about tent sites back towards the ridge we’d crossed and neither of us could think of anything useful. It wasn’t very hospitable trail. 

The SOBOs gave us advice for the water and bid us a cheerful goodbye. We motored through tent set up. Then came the infamous bear bag chore. I was determined not to freak out about it, but I also dreaded the feeling of failure and the embarrassment of Oakland being better at something that I felt like I should excel in because I’ve been doing it for so long. The pickings were somewhat slim despite the vast number of trees. We finally settled on one that had a ton of underbrush to contend with. I told Oakland to throw first and then to leave while I threw. Her rope got instantly snarled when she tried to unravel it. As she worked at the tangle the rope also got caught in sticks and anything it grazed. She stood there fuming at her rope while fastidiously attempting to free it. She told me to take the rock bag and throw my line, but right when I had my line unraveled she called out that she had untangled hers. I returned the rock bag (we only have 1 of them) and she threw the line. She made it on the branch the 2nd try, but it was too close to the trunk. She threw a few more times and got it farther from the trunk but we ultimately decided that the limb was too short. She mentioned hanging our bags on one line, which meant I didn’t have to throw one. For whatever reason this sent me into a tailspin about not getting to throw a line and feeling useless. Illogical but true. I kept it to myself and watched while Oakland got the rope on our backup tree after 1 try. Ultimately, this is GREAT but in that moment I felt so envious and whiny about the fact that it probably would have taken me three times as long. Didn’t think I would have so much to whine about with the advent of Oakland’s company did you?? 

We walked back over to the tent site and Oakland prepped herself to get water. Being the astute partner that she is, she asked how I was doing and I gave her the honest answer of “not great,” but that I was working on it. I set up my bedding while Oakland took her time at the water source getting resupplied and washing her face, arms, and hair. I moped a bit while I set up my bedding. Then I unpacked Oakland’s food bag and dinner supplies and put her pack in the tent for her. My stomach grumbled. I feared for my waning patience, so I ate a few spoonfuls of Oakland’s peanut butter, which she had suggested I do earlier in the day if I needed to. 

Oakland got back looking freshly washed with her wet hair. I took my water filtering supplies, my Kula cloth and our bronners soap down to the water source. The trail was on the steeper side, but not too long (maybe 0.1 miles) and had a switchback. I followed the SOBOs’ instructions and ducked underneath a log to continue down a worn path that led to a fast, rocky stream coursing through blooming rhododendrons. I filled my water bottles and my sawyer bag. Then I rinsed my arms, face, and legs with Oakland’s bandana (covered with the Oakland A’s logo, naturally). I filled a scoop to dump over my head and then I filled another scoop to wash my Kula cloth a little ways away from the water source. It had begun to smell like a urinal, so it was time for the power of soap. 

I slowly trudged up the trail back to our tentsite. We installed ourselves on two rocks at a neighboring tent site to avoid the numerous flies we’d seen at the shelter picnic table. Then we put our water on to boil and each “cooked” bare burrito for dinner. While we ate, we talked a bit about my thoughts and the underlying beliefs that were causing me such angst. Then we moved on to a bit of history that Oakland learned at the Narrows library. Towards the end of our main course, I thought I heard the footsteps of a creature. I walked around in search of the origin and eventually spied a squirrel digging around in the leaves on a hillside on the other side of the shelter. Damn squirrels. Always scaring the poop out of me! I returned to my seat and assured Oakland that it wasn’t a bear. We did our dishes and I ate a few Fritos from my dwindling supply. Then we had dessert and brushed our teeth. As we finished our dental routine, an older gentleman arrived at camp. He had a bushy white beard and was wearing a considerable amount of clothing for the temperature. He gave a minimal greeting before plopping himself down at the shelter’s edge. 

We grabbed our food bags and walked past the shelter to hang them on the tree we’d selected earlier. The man, who introduced himself as Mr. nice guy, asked our names and said that it had been a long, hot day for him. We both agreed with his summation. The air had been stifling for much of the day and the rock ledges were mentally draining. Thankfully, the limb we picked for the bear line held up to the force of hoisting both bags at once. We are on our last two days before resupplying, so there’s not that much food in either bag. 

I decided that I should check out the privy before the morning, so I grabbed my headlamp and went on a spider inspection. To be friendly, I showed Mr. nice guy the picture of Wolfie from this morning. He was appropriately impressed by the size of the spider and wished me good luck with this privy. It’s a newish moldering Privy and at face value, it seemed great. However, when I flipped up the lid, the metal chute leading to the pit below had no less than 3 spiders: a daddy long legs, a large black spider, and a small auburn spider hanging from its web near the edge of the seat. At first I thought I would simply clear away the small spider, but when I spied the larger black spider, I let out a yelp and said NOPE. I proceeded to pee just on the other side of the privy and went roaming around in the brush trying to find a suitable place to dig a hole in the morning. I informed Oakland of my recon findings. She gasped and said that she planned to bring her water bottle to the privy to shoo away the spiders and use it no matter what because she didn’t feel like digging around in the brush tomorrow morning. A brilliant plan if it works. I certainly won’t be trying it first. 

We changed our clothes and settled in to write our next resupply list for HQ while mr. nice guy’s friend arrived. It was well past 8pm at that point, and I did not envy the list of chores he had to accomplish in the dwindling light . Once the lists were done, we decided against playing cards in favor of Oakland puttering with her maps and me working on my notes. I’m finishing this to the occasional sound of a whippoorwill, a barred owl, someone (hopefully one of the two shelter dwellers) crunching around in leaves, a passing plane, leaf matter dropping from trees, the distant sound of water, and dry flies. 

Mile 674.8 to mile 687.2 (12.4) 

Checklist total miles: 696.0 

Oakland total miles: 216.6 

Creature feature: a few deer, 2 fawns, a garter snake, a black snake, cows, a few lizards (one of whom is hiding in the picture below), pesky squirrels scaring the poop out of me at the campsite, spiders and more spiders, and the sounds of whippoorwill and barred owl from our tent. 

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