August 11, 2019
I woke up 11:30pm, then 1am, then 3:45am and finally at 5am. Thankfully, I was never awake for very long. My tent site was so slanted that each time I woke up, I was several inches away from my starting point. To my relief, there were no nighttime visitors. I decided to give up on sleep around 5am to give myself time for the long haul to Lewis Mountain Campground. There were a smattering of stealth spots that I could use as bailout points, but as I’ve said like 8 times already, I had no desire to stealth camp alone in SNP. My other unappealing backup option, should the campground be full, was to hike another 0.8 miles to Bearfence Mountain Hut.
I clicked on my headlamp and packed up my gear with all of this data rattling around in my head. Then I changed into my hiking clothes and popped a squat by the bear pole at the edge of the woods. My plan was to leave my other privy needs until the last possible minute to reduce the amount of time I spent in the spider box. I heaved my pack out the tent door and followed suit with my tired body. As I started to dislodge my stakes, I heard a crash in the woods. I looked towards the sound and my headlamp beam settled on two glowing eyes. I held my breath as the form materialized into a deer that came waltzing into the back of the piney area and went straight to the spot on the ground where I had peed. Someone once told me that deer like to lick the salt from urine, and I now had evidence to go with that claim.
I laughed to myself while I continued dismantling my tent. The deer finished its first treat and made large concentric circles looking for more. I whistled and clapped as it crept towards my pile of gear on the ground. I finally clacked my poles together, which registered as ‘slightly more than nothing’ on the deer’s danger scale. My privy time had arrived, so I took my gear over to the shelter. I had visions of coming back to the deer chewing on my bag, so I stowed it on the top deck of the shelter. I wasn’t keen on attracting hitchhiking spiders, but I also didn’t want a deer to chew a hole in my bag.
I hobbled my way up the short, steep hill to the moldering privy. An overflow area enclosed with metal mesh extended past the footprint of the privy. Spider eyes glinted in my headlamp and when I got closer, I could see 3 gigantic specimens sitting along the top edge of the mesh. That was not a good sign. As I undid the wooden latch, I had “Arachnophobia” visions of spiders flying towards my head, but I found a very lightly inhabited privy with two buckets of wood shavings. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. I propped the door open and wrote my letter to congress while doing my best not to let my light beam illuminate the corners of the structure.
I hobbled back down the hill and found my gear as I had left it. I did a quick spider check and grabbed my food from the nearby bear pole. The sky slowly brightened as I ate breakfast to the sound of birds and the chewing bugs that I assume were inhabitants of the giant wood pile. There was a slight chill in the air that kept me in my long sleeves. I brushed my teeth and filtered the rest of my water. Very unfortunately, I needed to make a second privy visit, so I set my poles on top of my gear as a booby trap for the marauding deer and went back up the hill. While I was there, I decided to make my 1100 mile sign out of wood shavings (don’t worry, I didn’t waste very much of them). I had failed to make the sign on my marathon day for obvious reasons, and I completely forgot to do it yesterday.
I finally hit the trail around 6:45am, which was later than I had hoped, but not bad for another slow moving morning. I could already feel my resource scarcity kick in as I made my way up the first climb of the day to Weaver Mountain. Having lived in the throng of NYC/Brooklyn for nearly 10 years, I have become accustomed to everything being crowded and/or unavailable. I assumed that the middle of summer would be a pretty popular time to camp at SNP, and the number of day hikers and car travelers I’d seen thus far just reinforced my theory that I could very well hike almost 20 miles to find a full campground.
Needless to say, I was distracted as I made my way through the dense woods. I did manage to notice a handful of bright orange button shaped fungi on log and admire the morning light filtering through the trees.
At some point during this stretch, I heard a loud crash and saw a small black bear hauling ass through the brush to the left of the trail. That definitely woke me up.
The wooded summit of Weaver Mountain was forgettable, and I soon found myself crossing Skyline Drive at Simmons Gap. Then came another short climb that felt much like the first with thick greenery as far as the eye could see. I gave a silent thanks to trail volunteers as I stepped on evidence of recent maintenance.
The trail gradually rose in elevation for nearly two miles. I absentmindedly chewed on my uncertain evening accommodations while I sweated my way uphill. About halfway up, I stopped to take off my long sleeve shirt and tape the outside of my chatty knee. On the way downhill, I stopped at an overlook to take my first break of the day.
It was only 9am, but I had hiked the customary 2 hours required for snack time. I used my meager phone signal to call the number for SNP services listed in AWOL. After about 4 minutes on hold, I hung up and called Oakland. I knew she would be awake despite the early hour in California. I wanted to hear her voice and I needed to ask a favor. There was no way I could spend the time or the battery power on hold with park services, so Oakland kindly agreed to get in touch with the reservations line while she got ready for work. When all was said and done, I’d spent nearly 30 minutes at the overlook. I’m sure my feet appreciated the break, but the rest of me was stiff, and I did not have that kind of time to lose if I was going to make it to Lewis by the store’s 6pm closing time.
My KT tape refused to stick to the bend of my sweaty leg, so I tore the long strip into two pieces, which probably made it even more useless. Not too long after our call, I got a text from Oakland informing me that the campground was already fully booked for the night. Dammit. That meant I had no reason to rush unless I wanted to get supplies from the store before it closed. It also meant I had to decide whether to stealth camp or push even farther to Bearfence. Neither option was appealing. I was anxious about hiking myself into a full-blown IT band flare if I chose the longer day. I was also anxious about relying on seasonal water sources at the stealth sites. My on-trail water sources for the rest of the day were pretty dreary, and if I spent a lot of time searching for water off-trail, I would have even less time to make it to Lewis before 6pm. I wasn’t desperate for rations from the store, but I secretly wanted to score a cancelled site at the campground.
Round and round I went as I crossed Skyline at Powell Gap and made the short climb to Smith Roach Gap. The footing ranged from pleasant to mid-sized loose rocks with high ankle twisting potential.
I made it to SR gap around 10:30 and enjoyed the wide open blue sky as I crossed the road. The trail skirted a small parking lot where I could see someone puttering in the trunk of their car.
I continued into the woods, but I stopped when I realized the person had just removed a weed wacker from his vehicle. The trail met up with a side path that led back to the parking lot. On a whim, I took a sharp left so I could thank this person should he turn out to be a trail volunteer. I interrupted his preparations and asked him if he was about to do trail maintenance. When he said yes, I told him that it was so great to finally get a chance to say thank you in person instead of in the woods by myself. He was very pleased with my gratitude and asked me about my hike. When he found out that I was nearly done done, he congratulated me and offered me some coconut water from his stash of cold drinks. I felt bad accepting such a treat because he was about to do hard work on a hot summer day, and he was much older than me, but he insisted. I ignored my sheepishness and asked for a selfie with him. Meet Jerry Hopkins, originally from Fredericksburg, VA, which happens to be where I went to college.
We shook hands and said goodbye. I was nearly to the woods, when he called out my trail name. I turned back, and he offered me a banana, but it was far too spotty for me. I fibbed and told him that bananas don’t sit that well with my stomach. Back to the woods I went, feeling very happy with my decision to stop and stressed out about yet another time leak in my morning.
I ran into another hiker shortly after starting the hill towards Hightop Mountain. He stopped to ask me if I was thru hiking, to which I gave my truncated “no, but yes, but no” answer. He gave me a fist bump when he found out how close I was to being finished, and shared the news that he would finish the state of VA today. He motored north after sharing the good news that it was only a mile and a quarter to the top. I didn’t bother to tell him that he was wrong.
I hiked alone to the sound of birdsong and my own heavy breathing. The pitch of the climb wasn’t very sharp, but it was nearly 2 miles long and I already felt like I was running on fumes. I stopped just short of the summit to get water from a box spring. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture of it, but it was basically a pool of water in a concrete basin just to the side of the trail. I thought for sure it would be a buggy mess, but the water was cool and clear even before I filtered it. I drank a fair amount before topping off my bottles.
I stopped at the rocky outcrop on the summit to have lunch “with” Oakland. Yes, even after spending 24 hours a day for nearly 600 miles, I still wanted to spend time with my partner. It’s a wonderful thing and a challenge when you’re thousands of miles away from each with spotty cell service and a demanding job.
I checked for rattle snakes before settling onto a semi-shaded rock. My lunch consisted of packaged junk food again (pop tarts, I love you). Who knows what it’s doing to my insides, but it sure did taste good. That said, I was looking forward to eating like my old kale-obsessed self in the very near future. A day hiker showed up about halfway through my break. I felt rude being on the phone, but the signal in SNP has been so spotty that I refused to get off the call. He stuck around for about 10 minutes before moving on. I finally forced myself to hang up and tucked my food bag back into my pack while more day hikers arrived. I saw a couple of families on my way down the mountain, which makes sense given the view and the proximity to a parking area. My knee felt okay for the first few minutes after lunch and slowly started to ache as I neared Skyline Drive. My KT tape had peeled almost all the way off my leg, so I finally just gave up on it.
As I crossed the road near the Hightop Mountain parking area, I ran into the section hiker I’d seen on the other side of Hightop. I was confused by his hiking direction, but I didn’t bother asking him to explain. I congratulated him again as he walked towards his truck. Just as I was about to head into the woods, he called me back and asked if I needed any food. He even offered to go shopping for me and drop supplies off at the next intersection for me. I didn’t have the patience to figure out what I might need in that moment, and I preferred to muddle through on what I could find at the way stations. I declined his generous offer and wished him well as I headed back into the green tunnel.
Just before Swift Run Gap, I passed a stream with a micron of flowing water. I opted out of the tedious task of scooping water to refill what I had consumed since lunch. That turned out to be a mistake because the next two sources were both off-trail. One source required a 0.2 mile road walk (round trip) and the other option was at a picnic ground about the same distance from the trail, but guthook users reported that the spigots had been off for quite awhile due to low levels at the source.
I crossed the 4 lane highway at the gap and ill advisedly skipped the trip to the ranger station for water. It was 1:40pm and I was too stressed out by the time that the errand would require. (Now is when you say, “Will Checklist ever learn??”) I also loathed the idea of walking on pavement for more than the 30 seconds it took to cross the road.
The trail led me up yet another hill that didn’t last long but the effort of climbing was replaced by the effort of not twisting my ankle on the medley of loose rocks. I was tired and it was hard to maintain steady foot placement.
The idea of stopping at the first stealth site near a potential water source became more and more appealing as I walked through the open woods. I took a 5 minute break on a comfy rock to give my throbbing feet a few minutes to themselves. My right foot was noticeably angrier than my left, which made me anxious about my lingering foot issues from 2018. I only had about 10 ounce of water between my two bottles, which also put me on edge.
The rest turned the dial down on my feet for a little while, but my resource scarcity ratcheted up when I saw the no camping signs right before the first stealth option I had been strongly considering.
The rules for stealth camping in SNP are basically: don’t do it within 1/2 mile of an established “park development.” Apparently picnic areas counted as developments, which didn’t make any sense to me because I can’t camp at a picnic area. My hopes for an early day were dashed. I had no intention of breaking the rules, so I committed to hiking all the way to Lewis campground (or Bearfence) unless something hurt more than to be expected for an almost 20 mile day.
But the problem of water remained. I rechecked the seasonal spring option for the stealth site and realized that it was 0.2-0.3 miles in one direction. That would be a long round trip for a potentially dry spring. I pondered the wiseness of skipping another water source in service of making forward progress. When I arrived at the side trail intersection, I decided that today would be my last day of terrible decisions and continued north.
Distraction and exhaustion led to a silly mistake at another split in the trail. I accidentally went down a fire road instead of bearing right to stay on the AT.
I noticed the mistake pretty quickly, but it added to my overall irritation. When I reached the turn-off for the picnic grounds, I double-checked guthook to see what users had said about the water spigots. As luck would have it, someone was hiking towards the AT from that side trail while I fussed with my phone, so I asked them about the picnic grounds. No water. Okay, then. My meager supply would have to do for the next 5.2 miles.
About an hour later, I took another 5 minute break on a tall log. The weather had been stupendous all day with a light breeze and mostly shaded woods with cicadas providing a nearly constant soundtrack. My feet ached as I ate a snack in dappled sunshine. Phone service had been dismal for much of the day, so I ate in silence. Once I got moving again, the trail devolved into a rocky mess that quickly resolved into packed dirt.
I saw several day hikers in the next stretch. Thus far, SNP had been a strange combination of very few backpackers and a LOT of day hikers and/or car campers. It was not a ratio I enjoyed, especially in tandem with the expectation of bears around any corner. I felt lonely and ready to be out of SNP, but I was in no way ready to leave the trail for civilian life.
[real time addition: Oakland and I have begun calling this phenomenon CPD, or conflicting priorities disorder. I should probably come up with an acronym that isn’t so pathologizing, but it does feel like a perpetual problem I have.]
The next two hours involved pretty much the same terrain I’d covered all day. I took micro sips of my water every so often and paused for pictures of things like 4 swallowtail butterflies busying themselves on one clump of wildflowers. The trail ran parallel to the road, sometimes within sight of it.
For whatever reason, I skipped the opportunity to get water at Pocoso Cabin. I don’t have any notes about that decision, but I’m guessing I saw the description “just below the AT” and scoffed at the effort. A tired Checklist does not make for a logical Checklist.
I arrived the edge of the campground at 5:36pm. 24 minutes to spare before the little store would close. If the trail hadn’t been so easy for the last 3 miles, there’s no chance I would have made it in time.
The campground felt sparsely populated as I exited the woods and walked in the direction I assumed would take me to the store. A full sized RV with an elaborate outdoor setup turned out to be occupied by the campground hosts. They waved enthusiastically as I neared, and I stopped to ask them if the grounds were full. They said, “no dear, not even close. There are like 20 spots open.” A wave of relief and elation washed over me. I asked them to point me in the direction of the store and followed their directions up a small hill. On my way there, I stopped to browse the reservation board to confirm that I could do my shopping without fear of the place filling up. I rounded the corner to find an old wooden building with a stone porch with benches and electrical outlets. I pulled the classic hiker trash move and immediately plugged my phone into an outlet.
Three people stood near the door, one of whom was telling a story about how her cattle dog had eaten a stick, and she had to cut her trip short to take him to the vet. Her dog looked like it was drooling profusely, so I stuck my nose in their conversation to say that drooling can be a sign of pain. The woman welcomed my dog knowledge and then asked if I was a thru hiker. I explained the unintentional split format of my hike and when I described it as “not a thru-hike,” all three of them adamantly rejected my assertion. The dog owner insisted on a round of high fives and laughed when I told her my trail name. I stooped down in front of her dog and received a thorough face washing (probably because I was a salty mess). Then I busied myself inside the little store because I had 9 minutes left to take care of my shopping.
The food options were basic but functional. I bought a medley of poptarts, cheezits, beef jerky, ramen, clif bars, and cheese sticks. I also included an ice cream bar, a green machine, and a snackpack of peaches as bonus treats (note to self: that is too many sweet things for one night). As I filled my little mesh basket, the dog owner called my trail name through the screen door. She said she was going to give me her campsite for the night since she had to leave early to let her dog rest. I felt simultaneously excited and disappointed that I wouldn’t be picking my own site, but you don’t say no to that kind of gesture. I thanked her enthusiastically and she agreed to check with the camp hosts to make sure the exchange would be okay. She told me her trail name, but I failed to write it down.
I carried my little mesh basket to the counter and asked the cashier about the shower availability. She reached below the counter and handed me a crisp white towel and told me I would need quarters for the water. I paid for my wares and got the necessary change. Then she told me I could take the basket outside and leave it on the benches when I was done with it.
I sat on the porch eating my ice cream in a daze. I had gone from the expectation of missing my resupply and camping alone after another long day to getting a free tent site, electricity, running water (and more importantly, a shower), phone signal, a full sized clean towel, and other humans around to help lower my bear anxiety.
I walked back down the hill and found my tent site, which was near the edge of the campground on the right hand side. The site appeared idyllic with a huge grassy area, a picnic table, and my own bear box. I felt happy to have the box and annoyed that there were like 25 of them in this campground alone yet so many shelters on the trail had neither a bear box nor bear poles.
Sadly the ground turned out to be made of an impenetrable substance. I could barely get my tent stakes more than a few inches into the soil. I was perplexed and aggravated as I made the final adjustments to the guy lines. I crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t wake up to a collapsed tent in the middle of the night.
My picnic table was still in the sun, so I cooked while my dinner also cooked because I didn’t feel like sitting on the ground with the ticks. I ate the peaches and texted Oakland about my triumphs while I waited for my food to hydrate. My neighbors across the paved road offered me food, which I declined because I wanted to work on my own supply. The guy was curious about my hike and congratulated me when I got to the part about being almost done with the entire trail. The sun finally went down far enough to shade my face, which of course made me cold almost immediately. I had cheesy noodles for dinner, which normally would have been a good thing, but I had gotten sick of the peas. I ate a mini snickers for dessert and washed my dishes in the utility sink outside the bathrooms. Such a luxury.
When I got back to my tent, one of my other neighbors pointed to a doe that had bedded down at the edge of the woods on his site. She had a bird hanging out on her back and looked quite peaceful despite the hubbub of campers. I went back to my site and gathered my things for the long awaited and very necessary shower. A paved path led from the campsites through a small patch of woods to the side of the camp store where there was a private bathroom. There weren’t any hooks, which made little sense, but I dragged a small bench in front of the shower to store my clothes and towel.
I managed to get all the way undressed before I realized that I’d forgotten the quarters in my tent. Classic Checklist move. You can only imagine how thrilled I was at the prospect of getting dressed and making another round trip, but it had to be done. I left my towel and evening clothes outside the bathroom door and dropped a few things off at my tent after putting the pile of quarters into my hip pocket. On my way back to the shower, I grumbled about the extra distance on my sore feet. Here’s what they looked like after 73 miles in SNP:
I undressed again and put the quarters in for my first 5 minutes. Sadly, the water didn’t get hot enough, but I was definitely much cleaner. I splurged on another five minutes, which I then felt bad about because I didn’t really need the extra time. This is what living in a drought state will do to you. I tried my best to avoid touching the grimy and now wet floor with my bare feet while I put on my camp shorts and my “fresh” hiking shirt. I brushed my teeth and flossed before heading back to my tent. On the way there, I spotted one of my gaiters on the path. I must have dropped it on my way back for quarters. I was horrified that I hadn’t noticed its absence sooner.
When I got back to my tent for good, I set up my bed and finally stopped moving around 9pm. Smoke from nearby campfires wafted through my tent doors. I could hear a lot of different conversations happening at once, which was both comforting and mildly annoying given how far past hiker midnight it was. I’m finishing this to the cacophony of frogs and crickets, people talking, my neighbor’s van door sliding open, and the occasional bug plopping off the tent walls. The question is, do I pee close to my tent in the middle of the night or do I walk all the way to the bathroom? I think we all know which choice I will make.
Mile 897.6 to mile 917.4 (19.8) – Lewis Mountain Campground
Checklist total miles: 1138.5
Creature feature: cute cattle dog, day hiker dogs, cardinals, oven birds, the bear running away, deer in the campground and so many butterflies.