July 11, 2019
It rained on and off throughout the night, but never very much at any given time. I slept pretty well with the light rain sounds and the bugs talking to each other. Our site proved to be soft and not as horribly sloped as it seemed. We both snoozed well past the usual privy call (a whopping 6:20am). Neither of us wanted to get up, but we had to take care of business. Oakland went NOBO and I went SOBO, which also happened to be the direction of our food bags. My left knee didn’t take kindly to being smushed in a crouch, but it worked out well enough. I got my food bag down from the morass of twigs without complications. We had successfully avoided the marauding raccoons from punchbowl!
Back to the tent I went where Oakland had already changed clothes and was in the process of packing up. The humidity in the tent was stifling even with half the doors open. We packed and griped about moisture. Nothing ever feels dry on the AT. I put my contacts in earlier than usual because the heat was too much for me and I didn’t feel like having my glasses slide all over the place. We emerged from the tent with full packs. Oakland took a cloth to the outside to dry the large droplets. Then we folded it up and were pleasantly surprised that it was only mildly dirty on the bottom rather than the muddy mess I expected.
We ate breakfast on the mossy log next to the little fire pit and watched ants steal away the crumbs that dropped from our bars. Oakland’s appetite has increased enough for her to eat a full probar and a mini cheese. Rays of sunshine peaked through the trees, but didn’t last long as mist crept towards us from the nearby river. After breakfast we filtered water, brushed our teeth and prepped our feet, all the while fighting the constant battle of getting dirt on everything and slapping at no-see-ums.
We headed up the trail around 8:30 and started with mild rolling terrain through pines. The air already felt like a steam bath as we made our way north under overcast skies. Shortly after setting off, we began to have views of the reservoir to our left. We stopped to admire a wee orange friend:
The trail skirted the length of the reservoir and then took a slight right away from the water. Sweat dripped down my calves anytime we paused to drink water. We crossed over several small streams and eventually came to a larger creek which Oakland called a river. I laughed at her as she insisted on its river-ness. I finally agreed with her that it was a CA river.
We could hear the sound of the briskly running water for awhile as the trail started to gain elevation via switchbacks. We eventually popped out at a dirt road where two people were either taking a break or collecting themselves to begin their day. One was an older woman wearing a mint green skirt/floral shirt combo and the other was a tall guy wearing varying shades of brown. I jokingly asked if everyone had worn their bathing suit because the humidity was off the charts. They laughed and Oakland said we were going to swim our way up the trail as we walked back into the woods.
Then the trail flattened out and turned into a pristine, winding walk along pine needles. We took the required trail detour to bypass a damaged bridge. The change meant we missed a set of falls at the brown mountain creek crossing, but we could hear the water for a good portion of the walk. We could also hear the older folks gaining on us. We eventually came to a wide creek crossing where the now trio of day hikers caught up to us. They slowly picked their way across the creek as we continued onward.
I wanted to take a picture of the mint green outfit for you, but I didn’t want to be caught in the act. We passed a historical plaque with a contemplative bench across from it, but we didn’t stop to read the information.
Around 10:30 we reached a long sturdy footbridge that crossed the creek and led to the brown mountain creek shelter. The water source at the shelter is listed as seasonal so we backtracked across the bridge and put our packs down at the tent sites that ran alongside the creek.
We decided to sit there for our break instead of filtering water and then eating at the shelter. The day hikers arrived at the bridge right as we sat down on a sodden log. We said hello but that was the extent of the interaction while the one sporting the mint green stopped to clear debris out of her shoes. I mowed through my cheezit cashew combo eating more than half and wanting to finish it. Then we filtered water from the stream and marveled at the influx of butterflies coasting around us. One of them landed on my head and smaller brown and orange ones were all over my poles and water bottle.
We crossed the creek and about a hundred yards later reached the shelter turn off. Oakland needed a privy break, so I sat at the picnic table and made notes. Then we continued sweating our way north with the sound of water to our left. The trail followed the creek at various distances for the next half mile or so. At one point we saw a large stone fireplace across the creek. According to the second sign, which we stopped to read, the area used to be inhabited by former slaves. There was a corn gristmill and a farming community.
We continued towards route 60, completely soaked in sweat because of the still air and the high temperatures. We popped out of the woods and were met with a busy road that had a wayside (aka a parking area with picnic tables). We headed towards the far end of the area and settled down at the only picnic table in the shade. A large digital sign read “caution: loose cows next ten miles.” We spread out our lunch fixings and watched the loud traffic go by. At some point, I felt a crawling sensation and looked down to find a very small tick racing up my ankle. I showed it to Oakland to help her get a sense of what to look for and tossed it into the grass. I checked my email with my newfound phone signal and decided to take the time to respond to my friend halfway. We are attempting a meetup in Maine that will be very exciting if it happens. He will be in Maine for ten days that should overlap with when we are starting that leg of the trip.
After spending longer than intended at our roadside stop, we headed back into the woods while large trucks zoomed down the road. The VA tech student stood with his thumb out at the top of the rest area’s driveway. When cars passed him, he would lift up his hands in frustration, which didn’t seem like it would ingratiate him to other drivers. We gave him a nod as we ducked back into the woods to start the 3,000ft climb to the top of bald mountain, which is apparently not bald in the slightest according to AWOL. There were supposedly switchbacks according to a commenter in guthook, but they were actually just curves that continued straight up rather than slightly leveling out the way an actual switchback would.
Sweat poured down each of us and collected on my pole handles. We stopped every so often to drink water among the intense greens of the forest. At some point I saw a flash of red and spied a cardinal on a low shrub. I pointed it out to Oakland and suggested that she walk in front of me to get a better view. The vegetation was thick and there were berry patches nearby.
As she crept up the trail, several female cardinals flashed around and a blue bunting burst out of the brush heading towards higher ground. We watched the birds zoom around and then continued up the endless hill. Around the halfway point, a southbound hiker with a day pack headed towards us. I jokingly said we would stop for him so we could secretly take a break. He laughed and then said he was slack packing and then something incomprehensible about having hiked twenty miles or going 20 total. He also called over his shoulder “there’s a storm coming!” Neither of us caught his commentary fully, but his mention of mileage sent Oakland into a justified tirade about the comparisons and competition that goes on between hikers. She has witnessed the mileage conversation many times now and she’s right: there’s an undertone of “what kind of hiker are you” that gets based on the mileage you’re able to complete.
We both stewed on the concept as we trudged up each new vanishing point taking care over the small clumps of gravel and loose rocks. I wish I could take Oakland’s give no fucks attitude about mileage, but I have to admit, I’m not immune to the judgment that I feel when we hike less than 12 miles in a day. Silliness. The trail eased up a few times towards the top. For the last tenth of a mile, it pitched upwards over a few rock steps and more packed dirt at an Achilles straining angle. Right before the official summit we came to this view:
On the last stretch before the actual summit, we ran into a couple of day hikers stopped for a water break. The woman said you’re almost there! And I said great! But the question is where?? Which I said because the summit isn’t the end of our day, and I was more challenged by the downhill to come than I had been by the incessant climb. She took my comment well enough, and we continued up to the wooded summit with no view to speak of. The trail was level and kind for a few hundred yards before it began descending. Thankfully there were actual switchbacks for some of the time as we made our way through more of the same thick tall jewel weed.
We made it to the shelter turnoff at 3pm. The blue blaze trail is 0.6 miles down to the shelter, which is longer than I would usually bother with, but stopping here means we get a privy (easier on the knees, harder on my psyche with the recent uptick in spiders) and a slightly shorter day after several long days in a row.
The trail wound us through the same basic terrain at a gentle grade. We heard voices down at the shelter, which I’m ashamed to admit made me cringe. I wasn’t in the mood to talk about hiking or listen to yet another twenty something or sixty something dude-bro. Right as we approached the stream crossing with the shelter in sight, we heard a loud crack and saw a spray of fireworks light up from the ground. Oakland and I both groaned and made judgments about the people setting them off. A second crack and flame show happened on the heels of the initial spark. I went first as we made our way to the shelter. Someone called out “the first show was free but the second one will cost you.” I replied “how about I pay you not to do it again.” Either they didn’t hear me or they didn’t appreciate the comment. Either way, I was too overwhelmed by the scene to care.
The picnic table was strewn with trash, a hiker meal stood open with food crusted all over the top, a nearly empty handle of tequila sat in the middle of the table to complete the picture. A fire that had clearly been going for awhile blazed and smoked in the fire pit. A guy in street clothes and sunglasses seemed to be in charge of the fireworks. There was another guy in street clothes who appeared out of nowhere and two older hikers traveling together. I said hello as we walked through and tried to take in the scene without letting the horror show on my face. Everyone said hello back as we put our poles against the side of the shelter. We asked if they knew where the tenting was and sunglasses pointed down a side trail saying there were flat sites and two fire rings. In an attempt to escape, we went straight to the tenting area to check it out. As we wandered surveying the rocky slanted sites, it started to thunder. We decided to make tracks back to the shelter to eat a snack and setup the tent in a bit.
We put our packs down inside the shelter and sat on the steps. The older couple asked us questions about our hike and Oakland ended up getting into a conversation about teaching, which happens with some frequency. I sat back eating snacks and feeling somewhat left out because the older man had asked us both what we do for work, but when he heard that Oakland is a teacher, his wife started asking follow up questions and we never circled back around to my profession. I consoled myself by petting a cute dog:
It rained lightly in fits and starts, but it didn’t seem like it was actually going to storm, so we decided to head back to the tenting area and setup. Of course, within minutes of walking away from the shelter, the sky darkened and the wind picked up. We decided to divide and conquer. I set up the tent and Oakland went to get water. The site was rocky and slanted, but I did my best to make it habitable. I setup the tent, put the bags inside and hurriedly installed a leaf gutter as the thunder rolled in. I had just decided to try throwing a bear line in the darkening skies when Oakland came back with the water. It started to sprinkle as we walked over to the tree I’d selected. I made a few decent tosses that just missed. Right as the rain kicked up, I made a toss that left the rope in a snarl. Oakland grabbed the rope and we made a bee line for the tent as it began to pour. As I opened my side of the tent, I saw what I thought was a couple of hikers heading towards the tenting area. I felt bad for them because they were about to get caught in a downpour. We battened down the hatches and listened to the rain ding against the tent. I suppose we could have saved ourselves the trouble and stayed in the shelter, but neither of us really wanted to do that and tomorrow will be sunny enough to dry out the tent in the middle of the day. After a few minutes of listening to the storm and feeling relieved that we’d managed to get inside before the worst of it, we set up our beds. Thunder cracked and lightning flashed the entire time. We both settled onto our beds and half dozed for about 45 minutes while we heard voices outside. We couldn’t understand what they were doing or how many people were out there. It eventually became clear that there were a gaggle of teenagers with at least two adults. Oakland was worried that the kids would monkey around with our water but I didn’t think it was worth getting soaked to retrieve it from the common space.
The rain continued as the hour crept towards 6pm. We had no idea what to do about dinner. Neither of us wanted to eat cold food, but I’ve never been one to cook in the eaves of my tent. Walking to the shelter would entail getting soaked and dealing with the social scene. We decided to wait a bit longer. About twenty minutes later, it sounded as if the moisture was mostly coming from wind in the trees, so we decided to at least try to get a bear line up. We emerged from the tent to find a wall of tarps housing the teenagers and a hammocker in the midst of making her dinner. She had setup very close to where we intended to throw our line, so I asked her if she minded that we use a tree near her. She kindly said it was fine, so we both quickly peed, which we’d had to do since before the rain. Then Oakland threw her line while I untangled the line that I’d messed up earlier. Oakland got her line over the branch after about ten tries. I finally got the line untangled and made it on the same limb after about 7 or 8 tries. Success! The rain continued to hold off so we decided to make a break for it and cook dinner at the logs by the fire pit (see today’s top picture).
The teenagers were loud, but they kept to themselves in their tent city. We watched various bedraggled looking adults doing chores and wandering around as we waited for our dinner to cook. Then we dug into the warm food that helped reduce the chill that had come with the rain. We each had bare burrito and split a tortilla. Poor Oakland kept getting plopped on by a tree above her, so she scooted closer to me to avoid the tree bombs. We made our way quickly through dishes, dessert and dental hygiene jumping at the sound of any water fall, but it continued to be the result of wind in the trees. Oakland felt compelled to congratulate the adults on their ability to manage the teens in extenuating circumstances. They seemed surprised and said that they’d thought they were being disrupting. Their group is from the discovery school of VA.
Then we hung our food on the magnificent limb that left our bags high in the air. We each took one more pee break before getting into the tent for our evening routine. We changed into dry nighttime clothes, and I began the task of writing up the afternoon while Oakland looked at the maps. Around 7:45, the kids went completely silent. I’m finishing this to the sound of moisture falling from trees, the Star Trek bird in the distance, Oakland’s hand running across my shirt as she touches my back, and an occasional cough from one of the people in the large group.
Mile 802.2 to mile 812.3 (10.1) – brown mountain creek shelter
Checklist total miles: 821.1
Oakland total miles: 341.7
Creature feature: several scrawny red spotted efts, the cardinals, an indigo bunting, beetles, butterflies, the cute shepherd mix, and many pesky squirrels.