2019-Day 111: Big Meadows meltdown and a wonder muppet edition

August 12, 2019 

I woke up with a wicked muscle cramp in my side around 1:30am. Very unfortunately, I also had to pee, and it was far too long til morning to wait. I huddled in the dark at the edge of the tall grass and took care of my business by moonlight. A car drove through the campground around 1:45am, which made me laugh because I’d very nearly been caught with my pants down in the middle of the night. It also made me cranky when the person made a second loop through the grounds with their headlights blaring through everyone’s tents. Who drives through a campground at that time of night?? I finally fell asleep and woke up for good around 6:30, which felt like noon compared to my recent spate of early starts. I hobbled to the bathroom and was grateful to have the building to myself for my first visit.

When I got back to my tent, I changed clothes and started the packing process while I deliberated about how to manage my morning. I realized last night that I’m short a lunch and some snacks due to the store’s inadequate poptart supply and my hasty shopping trip. It didn’t reopen until 9am, which felt like an eternity. I had the option to take a 0.4 side trip (one way) to Big Meadows store on the way to my evening destination. That was my last option for packaged food within SNP until Elkwallow on my last day of the hike. I broke down my tent and had breakfast at the picnic table in the cool morning air. The chill was enough to warrant wearing my raincoat. I had a short phone call with Oakland who was already awake because insomnia. While we talked, I gawked at the amount of stuff my across the road neighbors had.

I thought for sure they must have kids with them, but I found out later than it was just the two adults. My wannabe ultralight self judged them for bringing the world to the woods. Oakland convinced me that my decision to skip laundry was worthwhile. What would 2-3 more days in the same smelly clothing really change? I’d had decent luck with rain so far, which meant none of my gear smelled like I’d just dunked it in a river. That’s basically clean in my long distance hiker book.

When Oakland and I ended our call, I organized my food purchases from last night and got rid of whatever packaging I could manage while I had easy access to trash cans. I separated out my snacks and took a final stock of what else I needed to buy to get me through my last few days. Then I brushed my teeth, put in my contacts and prepped my feet with their daily dose of body glide. At 9:05am, I walked down the asphalt drive and took the short fire road that led back to the AT. My morning started with easy going terrain and long stretches of gloriously simple hiking.

I passed the intersection for Bearfence mountain hut and was grateful that I hadn’t been forced to hike there last night. The trail rose in elevation towards Bearfence Overlook. Happy yellow flowers leaned into the path making for cheerful obstacles.

I reached the blue blaze trail for the overlook and hung a right. A small scramble was required to get myself onto the sunny out cropping for the actual overlook.

Sprawling layers of mountains met up with a bright blue sky. I admired the view while simultaneously mulling over whether to take the “rock scramble” on the northern half of the blue blaze trail that would eventually meet back up with AT.

I felt like I should want to take the scramble, which I did for the 360 degree view, but most of my reasons for considering it were bad ones. I wanted to be able to scoff at how hard people in guthook said it was (compared to Maine). I wanted to do it so I wouldn’t feel like a chicken for avoiding it and like I wasn’t a “real” hiker if I skipped it. I wanted to do it so that I could prove to myself that I could actually do it. They were all very ego-centered reasons that felt icky if I took a mental step back from them. A family arrived while I was at the overlook. They consisted of a mom, two small kids, and a set of grandparents. The mother asked me how long I’d been on the trail, and I said about three months. I explained my half 2017 and half 2019 story. The grandfather asked me a couple of logistical questions about how I get food. The adults all congratulated me and said goodbye as they headed back towards their car.

I decided to continue on the blue blaze rather than be a purist about the short stretch of the AT that I would miss if I didn’t backtrack. I also decided to give myself a break and skip the rock scramble. I felt okay about the decision until I caught up with the family and saw them taking the trail for the scramble. I was just about to force myself to follow them when they all turned around. It turns out they had just missed the turn for getting back on the AT. I pointed them in the right direction and watched the kids run ahead. The grandmother said a four-year-old could hike faster than a seventy-year-old with a resigned laugh. I agreed as they all pulled over to let me pass.

Shortly after turning back onto the AT, I hit a stretch of rocks that made me glad that I hadn’t taken the scramble detour. The terrain eased up after a few minutes of nonsense (that I didn’t photograph, which is indicative of my exhaustion level). I covered about an hour of easy trail through a glowing green tunnel, like so:

Every now and then I felt a sharp twinge on the outside of my right foot, which sent my anxiety through the roof (that’s exactly where it hurt for about 18 months). I cursed myself for having overdone it the last few days, and I worried about whether I had set myself up for returning home with an injury that would make my inevitable post-trail depression worse. All super helpful thoughts, obviously.

To make matters even worse, I had stubbed my foot three times that morning from exhaustion and distraction. I forced myself to take slow, careful steps as I went uphill towards Hazeltop. The moderation helped reduce the frequency of my foot stabbies. The cicadas finally woke up as I reached the wooded ridge line of Hazeltop. I took a side trail that led to a rocky overlook with a view very similar to the one on Bearfence.

I dropped my pack on the rocks, checked for rattlesnakes, and plopped down for my 4ish mile snack break. I called Oakland for company while I worked my way through an unsatisfying granola bar. I shared my fears about overdoing my foot, and she was her usual comforting, sage self. She said, “of course your body hurts, think about what you’ve been asking it to do,” and she told me to enjoy the nice weather because it might be my last full day of sunshine.

I hung up the phone and did my best to follow Oakland’s advice. The weather really was gorgeous: a light breeze, just enough haze to keep the sun from being too hot, and cool enough in the shade to give me goosebumps. I thought for sure August in SNP would be a hot mess, but I’d lucked out thus far.

I left my break spot after massaging my foot for a few minutes. The trail took me through various green tunnels, some with friendly footing, and other stretches with loose rocks that required more concentration. Neon chicken of the woods clusters occasionally caught my eye.

I crossed skyline at Milam Gap and hiked through the noon hour. That would normally be unheard of for me, but I’d gotten such a late start that all of my break times were off.

I hiked a few more minutes before finding a friendly, partially shaded lunch log. I dropped my pack, spread out my zseat and promptly took my shoes, socks, and ankle brace off to air out my feet. I could have eaten lunch at Big Meadows, but I decided that I wanted to dine in the solitude of the woods more than I wanted “real” food. I pulled out my food bag and tucked into my pop tarts, which had lost a lot of their appeal. A slight breeze and a squeaky tree kept me company while I worked my way through my lunch courses.

I lingered in my spot after finishing my food. I looked up from my phone for no reason in particular and saw a small bear slinking in the brush about 50 yards away. It hadn’t seen me yet, and I had no idea what to do as I sat there with my shoes off and my food bag on the ground.

While I froze with indecision, the bear gained another 10 yards and I noticed that it wasn’t doing an army crawl; it had a lame back leg that kept its center of gravity low in the underbrush. I was both sad for the bear and slightly relieved because the leg issue made the bear seem less dangerous. Little did I know how fast it could move with 3 working legs.

I had managed to get my shoes on without being detected by the bear. This was both good and bad because its trajectory was very close to my lunch spot. I whistled, and it didn’t flinch. When I stood up, it turned towards me and froze. Then it scrambled about twenty yards towards the trail and froze to stare at me again. I didn’t move, hoping the bear would decide it should leave first, but it continued to stare at me. After a few seconds of that, I decided it was high time to throw my food bag into my pack and get out of there. As I did so, the bear walked across the trail and continued parallel to me while taking its time to sniff the air. I lingered for a video since it didn’t seem keen on getting any closer to me. It’s hard to see because of the light variation, but follow the moving dark blob and you’ll eventually see its muzzle pointed in my direction.

When it stopped to stare again, I decided I’d pushed my luck far enough, so I stopped filming and walked backwards down the trail. I only did that for a few yards before turning to face forwards so I wouldn’t fall on my ass with a bear 70 yards away. We both went our respective directions.

As I walked away, I felt the urge to leave food for it because I wondered how well a 3-legged bear would thrive in the woods, but I knew it was a bad idea because it would habituate the bear to human food more than it might already be. A wave of sadness and anger washed over me as I continued down the trail. There’s no way to know what had made the bear lame, but my doom machine decided it must have been human related. I was pulled out of my rage reverie by a deer standing stock still to the left of the trail. We stared at each other before I moved along.

The trail was flat packed dirt that made for easy walking. Another chicken of the woods mushroom glowed like an orange frisbee from a distance.

A southbound backpacker approached after I’d finished squatting down for a picture. I warned her about the bear because we were still very close to where I’d had the encounter. Shortly thereafter, I crossed a small gravel road near Tanner’s Ridge cemetery.

The trail took me back into the woods for a short stretch before turning right to head up the gravel road towards Big Meadows wayside.

I heard an unidentifiable screeching sound as I chugged uphill. I thought it was a crow having a moment, but the noise turned out to be a small child. Apparently, I have a lot more empathy for a squawking crow than I do for a mini-human. I kept my irritation to myself as I passed the family.

The fire road was uphill for the entire 0.4 miles to Skyline Drive. In retrospect, I have no idea why I didn’t just top-off my food supply at Lewis Mountain. I have a feeling I disregarded that option because they were out of poptarts, which feels like a dumb reason to make a 0.8 mile round trip to Big Meadows. If I had better logic, I didn’t capture it in my notes.

I popped out of the woods to a super sunny roadside walk with no shade and a steady stream of passing cars. Thankfully the shoulder was pretty wide.

I turned left at the giant Big Meadows sign and walked through a gas station towards the camp store. Being so close to so many resources was theoretically a good thing, but it made me feel like I wasn’t really backpacking anymore. I was tired of people and even more tired of their cars.

I ducked into the bathroom first and had that familiar zing of excitement when I saw the electrical outlets. I didn’t really need to charge anything, but I noted them just in case. I left my pack by the bathrooms because I felt anxious about leaving it in plain sight with the steady stream of tourists. The lawn and the parking lot felt like they were crawling with people (the following picture doesn’t capture the overstimulation I felt at the time).

I felt like a smelly eye sore compared to the shiny car dwellers. I wandered the packaged food aisles feeling underwhelmed by my prospects. I had finally (finally) grown tired of just about every taste available to me. I eventually settled on the usual fare and moved on to the post card section. The shiny pointless bobbles in the gift store irritated me as much as the people buying them. When I spend long stretches of time in the woods, my patience for trinkets and materialism dwindles even more than usual. When I paid for my post cards, I asked the cashier about a postal box. She seemed confused by my question, so I asked it again saying I wanted to mail my post cards today. She told me to I could go over to the visitor center, waving her arm broadly in the direction I needed to go. Whatever building she was talking about hadn’t been evident when I was outside, so I figured it was really far away, which irritated me even more. I pointedly told her I was on foot and thanked her as I walked away with my purchase.

I left the store feeling overwhelmed and so aggravated. I confirmed that I couldn’t see the visitor center from where I stood, and I had no intention of wandering around on pavement to find it. I asked a person in uniform if he knew about the PO box situation, and he told me I might be able to get the lodge to send the postcards in their outgoing mail. I told him I was on foot and wouldn’t be walking that far. He very kindly offered to deliver them there for me, but I declined because I hadn’t even written them yet. The whole process felt like too much to bear (no pun intended).

I charged my phone in the bathroom for a few minutes, which made me feel like a woodland troll, but I had no patience for sitting at the dining area outlets. With a smidge of extra juice in my lifeline to Oakland, I packed up my belongings and headed back to the trail. Just past the gas station, I saw a picnic table in a small grassy area. On a whim, I dropped my pack and sat in the shade to have a very unplanned cry about everything that had just happened. A perfect light breeze blew as my head swirled with the pressing weight of humanity. I was nearly done with my journey, and I would soon rejoin the masses in the land of excess and overuse and global warming and general decay of the earth. This snickers bar from the store pretty much sums up my head space:

I felt like I’d come slightly unhinged as I moped my way down the grassy shoulder towards the gravel blue blaze. My knees ached as I took tiny downhill steps back to the AT where I took a right to continue north. The trail soon got rockier and dustier, which made me feel like I was back in CA. A long break in the trees to my right gave me a view of the lodge that I had been unwilling to walk to. I continued to cycle through an array of emotions as I hiked, feeling sad and lonely one second and a moment later crying with the relief of being almost done.

As I puttered up a gradual hill, a southbound parent and her kid approached. They asked me if I was doing the three mile loop, which was a confusing question given my giant pack and the fact that I had no idea what loop she was talking about. I said, “no, I’m hiking the AT, and I’m almost done!” We had a brief conversation about my tattoo of the trail before saying goodbye.

I continued up the dusty hill until I reached a side trail for an overlook. Ever the sucker for a view, I left my pack at the intersection and gave it a quick look-see. Here’s what I found (in picture and video format):

I felt mildly rejuvenated by the detour as I put my pack on, but the buoying effect didn’t last long. I passed a couple of deer bedded in the shady brush. They looked at me like I was just another blip in their day.

A few minutes later, I cringed at the sight of tents rising up out of nowhere as I approached the outskirts of the Big Meadows Campground. There were cars and grills and too many signs of humans for sanity.

A southbound hiker headed towards me with two full sleeves of tattoos and a swift, compact gait. I saw an AT hang tang that made me wrongly assume the hiker was a SOBO. I said, “hi! you’re the first SOBO I’ve seen!” They clarified that they were a doing a flip flop, which was frankly even more exciting to me because that had been my original format. I shared my hiker data with them and was promptly congratulated for being nearly done. I walked away with a smile on my face and a smidgen of company in my heart. Of course the trail gave me a long distance hiker after I’d felt so alone amongst the fray of day hikers. Too bad we were heading in opposite directions.

The trail was a rocky, slate-covered mess for a large portion of the last several miles. I went past a series of small overlooks that all opened up to the same beautiful view.

Somewhere in the hamster wheel, I stopped to charge my phone for a few minutes while I ate a snack. There was no sense in skipping my afternoon break just to arrive at the shelter a little bit earlier. After I passed Franklin cliffs, the trail continued uphill for what felt like an endless amount of time in my droopy state. In reality, it was about a mile and a half. My foot hadn’t hurt for awhile, but it was hard to keep it from sloshing around on the uneven footing, and I had to keep my eyes glued to the ground to avoid stubbing my toes.

When I passed the parking turn off for Rock Spring Cabin, I gave a silent cheer for only 0.5 miles to go. Yet another night sandwiched between two parking areas. I finally reached the side trail for Rock Spring Hut at 5:25pm. I turned left and heard voices traveling up from the camping area. Company! That was both good and bad. It meant more help with bears and more energy for this introverted, alienated hiker.

The shelter sat in a holler with tent sites scattered in the surrounding hillside. I went down to the shelter to get my bearings and drop my food in the bear box (thank you SNP). An older hiker named Rock Man proudly announced that he had saved me a spot in the shelter. I kindly said I already had tent reservations. Another hiker named Tara had set up her gear in the shelter and was already sitting at the table preparing dinner under the watchful eyes of her ADORABLE muppet faced dog. I immediately started gushing over the fraggle of a creature named Athena while I pulled out what I would need for dinner. LOOK AT HER:

I left my dinner ware on the table and took the rest of my gear in search of a home for the night. The tent sites were small and rocky. I made do with one that was on the flatter side and seemed like it would fit my duplex footprint.

Oakland would have enjoyed my rock scraping and grooming attempts. I was once again surprised at how inhospitable the tent sites were in SNP. After a successful pitch of my tent, I left without setting up my bed.

I joined the two hikers at the table and tried (unsuccessfully) to not coo at Athena every 10 seconds. How could I resist this wild haired face??

We had a friendly but somewhat distracted conversation with the usual hiking related content. Tara and Rock Man are section hikers, one of whom I think was out for the weekend and one of whom was doing something slightly longer than that, but I didn’t write it down. I ate peanut butter and pepper jack cheese as my first course, ramen second (no tuna, hence the need for protein course number 1), and part of a full sized snickers for dessert. I had read in guthook that you could see sunset from the porch of the rock springs cabin, which sat just below the hut on the same trail that led to our piped spring. When I announced my intention for a sunset mission, Tara and Rock man both decided to join me.

After dinner, I brushed teeth and put all of my smellables in the bear box. Then I went to setup my bed before sunset so I wouldn’t have to bother with it in the dark. I stuffed my water gear, my long sleeve shirt and my headlamp into my day pack. No sense in making the trip to the cabin without filtering water along the way. After a quick stop at the privy, I arrived at the shelter to find my compatriots already gone. I followed the blue blazes and spent a few minutes getting water. The pvc pipe was set really low, which made it hard to fill my sawyer bag. My trusty scoop would have done the job much quicker, but there was no way I was going back up the hill to get it. I made do by submerging my bag, which was messy and ended with cold wet hands, but it did the trick.

I headed over to the cabin and immediately fell in love with the porch and with Athena the wonder muppet who stationed herself underneath the picnic table. Supposedly you can rent the cabin, but it looked like it had too much spider cave potential for me. Much better to sit on the porch and escape to my zippered tent for the night.

I whined about the hazy, drab sunset while also taking pictures every couple of minutes. Last night there had been deep pinks and reds through the trees at Lewis Mountain Campground, and tonight, when I actually had a view, the sky turned the lightest of yellows before fading to gray. You could barely call it peachy.

Rock Man, Tara, and Athena left around 8:15pm. I loitered to call Oakland, and I was immediately joined by a doe and her gangly fawn. My phone struggled to take a video in the dim light, but you can see them in these pictures:

My phone signal was frito-bag caliber, so I had to say goodbye to Oakland almost immediately. The doe and her fawn were unperturbed by my departure and munched away while I walked past them to my tent. I changed my clothes in the waning light and settled in for a do-over of my phone call. The frogs, crickets, and katydids warmed up for their evening concert, which I hoped would keep my voice from traveling too far in my neighbors’ directions (a few younger people were tented farther up the hillside).

We discussed our respective days until it was time for me to switch gears to the dreaded note writing portion of the night. As I settled down to work on my tiny screen of doom, I heard a crashing noise right outside my tent. I shone my headlamp through the mesh door and found a deer snacking a few feet away. I laughed with relief as I resettled onto my sleeping pad. I’m pretty sure I heard one of the deer burp as I tapped and squinted my way through a brief overview of the day. I’m finishing this to the welcome insect racket, the occasional gust of wind in the treetops, yet another passing plane, and the occasional snap of twigs that I decided were definitely deer and not bears. Definitely.

Mile 917.4 to mile 929.7 (12.3) – Rock Springs Hut

Checklist total miles: 1150.8 

Creature feature: the nearly tripod bear, so many deer, juncos, Athena the wonder muppet, and more butterflies. 

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