2019-Day 71: McAfee Knob part 1 edition

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July 3, 2019

We woke up around 6:30 and both took another shower, because why not! When you have a ceiling-mounted hot water deluge at your disposal, you don’t pass up the opportunity to experience it again. Then we joined Kendra and the kids upstairs where she made us all fried eggs and avocado toast. The eggs were from their chickens, of course. We luxuriated in yet another round of fresh food before heading back downstairs to pack the remnants of our gear and tidy the space.

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After another round of shmooping over Libby, we left for the trail around 9am with the kids in tow. By 9:45, we were standing on the side of the road putting on sunscreen to the sound of field birds and dry flies. 

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We then proceeded to sweat most of said sunscreen off as we walked uphill through an open field right as the heat of the day began in earnest. I was grateful for the sun but dismayed at the fact that all of our cleanliness was made moot (or “moo” if you’re a Friends fanatic) in a matter of minutes. The field was dotted with purple wildflowers and had been well maintained, so we were saved from trudging through high grass. We went up a long hill with switchbacks and good footing that led us to a rollercoaster ridge that ranged from rocks to soft leaves. Along the way we passed a confusing collection of abandoned clothing sitting on a rock. For whatever reason, this kind of thing always creeps me out and makes me think of the attacks from earlier in the hiking season.

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At some point along the ridge, we met a SOBO flip flopper named “p-dat” who threw rapid fire questions at us in a jolly but exhausting manner. We both itched to keep hiking and escape the whirlwind, so we eased our way a few steps from him to give a clearer message. He told us to say hi to “pajamas” if we run into him. As we made our way back into the quieter bubble of our own company, we discussed the loneliness of hiking a non-traditional SOBO hike and not running into trail friends for days at a time. I think I could manage that phenomenon during the day, but I really don’t enjoy camping alone at night or constantly camping around people I will see for only one night. 

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As we walked along, I thought about whether we might see a bear, but I convinced myself that it was unlikely because p-dat had just tromped through the area. Not longer after this thought, I heard a loud rustle. I paused to wait for more information, but nothing happened. I convinced myself it was a squirrel (because it usually is a pesky squirrel) until we heard more loud crashes, and I saw a flash of black. I stopped in my tracks and pointed to it, telling Oakland it was a bear (yay, captain obvious!). The medium-sized black bear paused for us at a safe viewing distance, but it was sadly too far away for a picture. This was Oakland’s first bear sighting! She was a bit rattled, but also excited by the development. We had been contemplating when to stop for a snack break, but we both decided to put some distance between us and our unexpected friend. It’s a silly concept really because bears are so fast that they could cover whatever distance we make in such a short time, but it feels better psychologically. So we walked about twenty more minutes before settling onto a log for our mid-morning break. We were plagued by giant black ants the entire time. I also found a large tick crawling up my leg while I made my way through a melting cliff bar. I showed it to Oakland for reference before I tossed it away from us. 

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We continued along the ridge, catching the occasional view of neighboring ridge lines. We both felt somewhat sluggish, but we were in generally decent spirits. As is the case with any bear sighting, I jumped at every noise for awhile, convinced that we were about to have another visitor, but no other bears crossed our path. As we hiked, I started daydreaming about what we could eat in Daleville tomorrow. It’s tricky because we’re arriving on July 4th, which could mean holiday closures. Resource scarcity reared its ugly head, so I decided to call the Pizza Hut right next to our hotel to ensure that we could make our pizza dreams a reality. Long distance hiker priorities in action! And the answer was yes. 

With pizza knowledge secured, we continued down toward the road and crossed the large parking lot that serves the droves of day hikers and section hikers starting in the McAfee Knob area. (picture is looking backwards after we made it across the road)

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For reference, McAfee knob is considered one of the most photographed locations on the entire Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of crowds. I’ve been to other popular hiking locations like Roy’s Peak in NZ and been faced with a line of 20 people waiting to have their picture taken at the “remote” viewpoint. As we made our way through the parking lot, I considered asking day hikers if they had any extra water to spare because we’d had a hot, dry hike thus far and the user reports for the shelters before McAfee were not good, but I felt too sheepish to approach anyone.

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We carefully crossed the BUSY two-lane highway and began our 3.5ish mile ascent to McAfee Knob. We passed at least 5 day hikers before we hit our lunch spot about 0.3 miles from the road. For reference, we’d already covered a little over 4 miles and only seen one hiker (“p-dat”).

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We had intended to eat at a small overlook labeled in guthook, but we got inpatient and plopped down on a set of rocks a little bit off the trail. I was also worried that the overlook would be clogged with people or too sunny to be a hospitable break location and the rocks were nicely shaded. We watched people go by as we ate our classy lunch dishes (tuna wrap with fritos and cheese for Oakland and poptarts with a medley of fritos and cheese for me). We had unintentionally parked ourselves at the intersection of the AT and a fire road that meets the AT farther up towards McAfee. Day hikers came and went from all directions as we fended off the black ants. Here’s one making a run for it with a piece of frito: 

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We conserved our water for the possibility of finding dry sources at the next two shelters and continued on north up the sometimes rocky and sometimes beautifully flat trail. We reached the first shelter in no time and found a day hiker sitting on the picnic table in street clothes scrolling through her phone. When we approached, she informed us that another hiker had only found mud at the water source. Rather than waste the effort to verify the report, we trusted it and continued hiking towards Catawba shelter, which was only 1 mile north. We took the shelter turn off and went down a small hill to drop our packs at the picnic table rather than lug them all the way to the water source which was down a steep side path. We fished out our water gear and piled it into Oakland’s day pack and grabbed our poles to make our way down the slope. At the bottom of the hill we followed a trickling stream down a few feet where we found a decent flow into a small pool. We were both VERY happy to see flowing water. We each drank an entire bottle, which is always a bit challenging for Oakland, and filled our waters to the sound of distant thunder. Two day hikers showed up right as we finished topping off our bottles. They were also visibly excited to have found water, and we left them to bro out together with their nalgene bottles while we huffed our way back up the hill to collect our gear.  

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Happily laden with water, we continued up the gradual hill towards McAfee. We were both drenched in sweat because of the temperatures, but not that overworked by the actual hiking. We were passed by the occasional troupe of day hikers heading back to the parking area, one of whom was a friendly older gentleman with an amusing “sweat it out” shirt. He asked if we were going to Maine as he made way for us on the trail. What this always means is “are you a thru hiker?” Technically we ARE going to Maine, so I said “yes in an alternative fashion,” and explained the situation. He expressed surprise and shock in all the appropriate places and wished us luck. We kept chugging along across mostly sand or loose rocks. We eventually crossed the aforementioned fire road and entered what is clearly a high traffic area with plastic fencing to keep people from taking erosion-causing shortcuts. We hiked along the dusty mildly graded trail for awhile until we saw two figures coming towards us. They turned out to be task rabbit and her boyfriend! It was kind of terrible timing in terms of my ability to be social relative to my desire to keep moving, but we stopped for a few minutes. Task rabbit is jumping up after Daleville to stay in front of her pink blazer who isn’t more than a day behind us. She suggested that we should get together in Daleville, so we shared our Pizza Hut plan to get her on board with the pizza that we had already been daydreaming about. After a couple of minutes, a hiking friend of Task Rabbit’s appeared, so we took that moment to whisk ourselves away. Neither of our bodies likes to stand still with packs on and there’s no telling how long those crazy kids could talk. The slackpacker passed us a few minutes later as we made our way up the final stretch before McAfee Knob.

We reached a slab of rock where a small wooden sigh said “overlook.” I said to Oakland “is it just an overlook or is it THE overlook?” We turned left and followed a short path to find an expansive view of the surrounding mountains and the famous ledge where thousands of hikers have perched for a picture. The slackpacker was still there. We asked him to take our picture and found out that his name is Mismatch. When he saw the angle I asked for the photo to be taken from, he asked us to retake his picture, which had been taken by a hiker who left right as we arrived. When I saw his solo leg dangling picture, we decided to redo our pictures as solo shots for maximum leg dangle.

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Oakland got a bit of the stomach wobbles when she sat down for her photo because she had a skydiving accident about ten years ago.

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I too had an intense flash of seeing myself fall of the edge ,but I held steady and all was well. It felt surreal to be standing in a spot that I’d seen hundreds of times on the internet, much like it felt when I reached Franconia Ridge in the Whites, and I was so happy to share the experience with Oakland. We fussed with getting the photos we wanted because we had the luxury of being alone for most of our time at the lookout. Then we ate a snack in the shade to take a break from the blaring sun on the rock face. A new brown and black bird hopped around nearby. It was unfortunately somewhat nondescript so it will be tricky to look up. Here’s a video of the landscape without the rock slab or death defying hiker poses, which I say with some jest because there are hikers that do far more questionable poses at the edge of that rock face. 

A couple of day hikers arrived right as we were packing up to head to Campbell shelter. One of them greeted us and said he was gassed from the hill and the heat. True statement. It had been incredibly humid lately, which is to be expected, but man does it slow us down when combined with incessant hills. As we left, I set my stopwatch to run so I could see how long it took us to get to the shelter. My plan is to hike back up for sunrise in the morning, and I needed to know what kind of buffer to allow. Oakland will theoretically join me, but I’m prepared to make the egregiously timed trek on my own if I have to. 

We twisted and turned through tight woods past giant boulders with mini-forests growing out of their tops. There were log steps that dropped us down to a series of switchbacks through more spacious woods. A power line ran to our right for a few hundred yards.

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The trail eventually led us across the line and past the “pig farm campsite” which is 0.1 miles south of the shelter. We took inventory of the sites and decided to go down to the shelter area in the hopes of finding tenting closer to the privy. About 2 minutes later, the red of the shelter popped out amongst the brown trunks. We walked up to the tenting area to investigate and found slightly slanted sites covered in tiny sharp rocks. We assessed for slantiness by standing on opposites sides of potential sites because our visual guesses didn’t really corroborate. The “opposing bodies test,” however, was pretty effective. We picked the best site we could and tested the tent stakes. It seemed doable despite the incredibly hard ground. I was dismayed by the millions of rocky shards, so I decided to look in the shelter for a broom. Success! I proceeded to sweep the tent site free of the most offensive pebbles, much to Oakland’s amusement. Here’s photographic evidence, care of Oakland’s thorough documentation of my ridiculousness. 

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After we managed to get the tent stakes in far enough for government work, we wandered around collecting leaves for our splash guards. Here’s the final product:

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Then we took out our water and dinner gear and threw our packs into the tent with the doors closed because I was convinced it was going to rain in the near future, and I didn’t want to be way off* at a water source with the tent doors wide open in a downpour. We put our food into the bear box (three cheers for a bear box!), and followed the blue blazes in search of water. The trail immediately thrust us into overgrown grass with the occasional crop of poison ivy dangerously close to our ankles. We crossed the same power lines and stopped to watch a cardinal alight on a branch. Oakland had apparently never seen one at such a close distance, which is mind boggling to me because they’re so common on the east coast. We walked about 0.1 miles farther into the woods to a fire road with a culvert underneath that housed the barely flowing stream we were supposed to use. Right as we spied the stream, I also noticed an indigo bunting taking a bath in one of the puddles. We stood and watched it until it either deemed us intolerable or had cleaned itself enough. Here’s a video that doesn’t do its vibrant feathers much justice, but I’m including it anyway. If you turn your volume all the way up, you’ll get a snippet of the appalachian bird songs that I miss dearly. 

The rubber pipe running through the culvert thankfully did its job and provided us with a very thin, but totally functional stream of water. We filled our waters, washed our limbs and faces and made the trek back to the shelter area. For bug abatement, I changed into my long johns on the very pointy tent floor (no beds yet) and we went down to the shelter picnic table to eat our classy ramen and tuna dinners. This spotted little friend joined us for the meal:

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As we did our dishes, the skies darkened and the wind picked up. We quickly made it through dessert and teeth brushing time. Oakland went to the tent, and I walked over to the privy to inspect it for spiders. A bunny sat nearby and hopped away when I stood less than four feet from it. The Privy seemed better than the last string of spider caves so I felt hopeful about having a decent experience in the morning. Slow, fat rain drops started to fall as I walked back to the tent. I crawled in, clapped off my shoes and tucked them inside. Then I immediately hopped back out to retrieve Oakland’s daypack that hung on a nearby tree. Once I was in the tent for good, with all the doors closed, it started to pour. We watched as water pooled around our gutters and eventually swirled under the bottom of the tent. There wasn’t much in the way of thunder, but the rain itself made quite the racket.

And here’s the radar picture we were able to pull up in the middle of the storm:

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Oakland eventually blew up her sleeping pad so she had somewhere comfortable to be, but she left her sleeping bag in its dry home to avoid the splashing. The gutters definitely helped, but they didn’t prevent all the splashing. We took advantage of the rare evening phone signals to be social media and texting zombies. Then I forced myself to start on the day’s notes. Every now and then we heard the loud crack of homespun fire works that sounded close enough to be in the tent site, but most likely emanated from McAfee Knob. We decided to do a full tick check based on the amount of brush we’d walked through and the tick I’d found earlier. Once we had the all clear, we went back to our usual evening tasks. Oakland leafed through her maps, and I tapped away on my tiny screen. The rain tailed off around 8:45, so I opened one of my tent doors to let more air through. Oakland followed suit about 15 minutes later. At some point, we watched a lightning bug work its magic on the side of the tent. If you have the patience for it, here’s a video with part of the light show: 

I’m finishing this to the sound of moisture dropping from trees, a passing plane, the occasional firework blast, the low hum of a dry fly working the late shift, and an owl I can’t quite recognize. 

Mile 705.6 to mile 714.3 (8.7)

Checklist total miles: 723.1 

Oakland total miles: 243.7 

Creature feature: Libby the wonderdog, cows on the drive to the trail, bunnies, lizards, a cardinal, the bathing indigo bunting, THE BEAR, a colorful moth, a silkworm on the picnic table, a sneaky chipmunk on McAfee Knob, the new brownish bird, butterflies, lighting bugs and this colorful beetle: 

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