August 13, 2019
I woke up to deer crashing around at midnight thirty, which is also when I realized I had to pee too badly to wait until morning. The downfall of being well hydrated. I walked several feet farther than usual to avoid attracting deer to my tent. I’d rather not wake up to the sound of deer licking the ground right by my head. It took awhile to fall back asleep, but a few minutes of internet zombie time and some deep breathing did the trick. At 5am, I woke to the sound of male voices at full volume and headlamp beams zinging around. I thought for a second that there was a bear in the camp or something else had gone wrong. Then I realized that the hikers were just breaking down camp without bothering to care about anyone else’s experience at 5 in the damn morning. Cool move, bro.
They didn’t talk constantly, which prevented me from asking them to be quiet. Instead, I seethed in my tent until my alarm went off at 5:30. I took a few minutes to text HQ about our meetup tomorrow because there’s no signal at my intended shelter for tonight. The garmin is finicky about how quickly it sends/receives messages, so a real time conversation can be glacial. Then I spent a few minutes posting to social media, which I’ve done sparingly during this hike. I finally changed my clothes and started packing with purpose around 5:45am. It was hard to muster, but I wanted to get to camp before the late afternoon rain. The bottom of my tent was miraculously clean, which made for a quick breakdown. A smattering of birds began their morning chatter along with a barred owl and what sounded like a fox to my untrained ears.
I dropped my pack by the privy and used the bathroom. The door was oriented towards the hillside, but the 5am loudmouths were long gone by then, so I left it open to give myself some mental space from my spider companions. Thankfully it wasn’t all that populated. I made quick work of my duties, and headed down to the shelter in the early morning light. Rock man was awake and had his hearing aids in. He asked me if I was going to make breakfast, and he seemed pleased when I said yes. We ate together at the table while I made sure to avoid the mystery substance on the wood.
Tara and Athena were in their hammock until nearly 7am. The doe and her fawn came back to have their own breakfast right next to the shelter. They gave none of the shits about the humans sitting 30 feet away.
When Tara emerged, Rock man said “good afternoon!” which produced the grumpy laugh you might expect. The doe quickly spotted Athena and gave the classic quizzical, terrified look with her ears tilted slightly forward and her nose twitching with the new creature’s scent.
She deemed Athena unsafe and wandered away with purpose. When Athena saw the deer move, she froze and made no sound or move to chase. I laughed and said that my dog would have been after that deer in a nanosecond. The doe and her fawn only bothered to go as far as the bear pole behind the shelter, so I watched them for a minute longer before heading back to my seat.
Tara went up the hill to pee with Athena hot on her heels. Then I prepped my feet and finished my hygiene routine while Tara broke down her hammock. The sky was overcast and the air didn’t move, neither of which boded well for staying dry. I said goodbye to my fellow hikers and headed up the side trail with Athena trotting behind me. She quickly got in front with her tail wagging as if to say, great! let’s go hike!
The idea pleased me to no end, but Tara called Athena back to the shelter. She walked a few feet back towards her person and paused to make sure Tara really meant what she’d said. Athena went through those paces once more before finally going all the way back to the picnic table. Oh well. I lugged myself uphill to the AT and turned left to continue climbing through a green tunnel with mild footing.
The air made me worried that the sky would open up at any moment. About thirty minutes into the morning, I heard a crash and looked up to see a bear running down the hillside to my left. That didn’t take long! About a hundred yards later, I saw a grazing deer. Busy morning.
As I approached a rock sneeze, I saw a warning sign that said no off trail usage allowed. I laughed to myself because the off-limits side of the trail looked like it could have been just about anywhere in Maine or New Hampshire while the left side was a placid dirt path. To the left of this amusing scene, clouds hung low over the nearby mountains.
I picked my way over the rock slide that crossed the trail and stopped to see a new to me flower before heading down the green tunnel.
The woods were on the quiet side save the occasional vireo. The sky continued to look threatening, so I stopped for my morning break a little early. I sat on a rock that was too tall for comfort and called Oakland who was already awake and feeding the menagerie. Per the usual, I spent more time than I intended on the phone, and I felt slightly chilled and stiff when I got moving again. The higher mileage days in the park have definitely left their mark on my lower half.
It started drizzling as soon as I resumed hiking. Much of the next couple of hours consisted of annoying loose rocks. I skipped all of the side trails for views because they didn’t seem like the would be drastically different from what I could see on the trail.
I grew crankier as my feet slipped more frequently no matter how carefully I tried to place them. When I checked the weather, I found a large green blob of precipitation coming right for me, so I mentally hunkered down for a soggy experience.
The trail took me down a rocky switchback and through another green tunnel. I heard a rustle to my right and looked up to see a fawn. It stared at me while I took its picture. Good luck finding it in the second photo.
The woods opened up, and I was met with a string of horseback riders waiting to leave a stable area that I hadn’t known I was going to pass. It was both confusing and fun to suddenly see horses.
They were lined up where I needed to walk, so I hung back while they went south down a yellow blaze. I took a quick picture of the stables and turned right to cross a small road and headed back into the woods.
The trail rose gently, and I saw yet another doe. When she stared at me, her head flicked to her left as if she was checking on her fawn. Sure enough, I found a fawn grazing on the leaves of a sapling at head height.
I left them to their snacking and hiked through a light mist until I heard another rustle that belonged to a small black bear about 60 yards away to my left. The trees were thin, so I had a good view of it as it walked around sniffing the air. I took a short video and hit stop when the bear seemed close to spotting me.
Up the trail I went, now with a more consistent rain. I wanted to put my raincoat on to prevent another chill, but I put some distance between myself and the bear before stopping to add a layer. The rain picked up even more, so I stopped taking pictures and have little to say about the next stretch of trail. I crossed a road and skirted a parking lot where children were screeching because of the rain. Then I went up a wide, well groomed path towards Stony man. I laughed when I saw a white blaze and a blue blaze smushed next to each other on the same tree, and decided it was worth getting my phone a little wet.
I passed a few day hikers heading back to the parking lot. When I got to the split for the trail to Stony Man, I found a group of people in ponchos being led by a tour guide. I peeled off to the right because stony man is 0.3 miles one way, and the views are questionable today. Little stony man is right on trail and would suffice for this tired hiker. I had to pee, but I wasn’t sure which way the last group was headed. I hiked another five minutes before tucking into a drainage ditch to relieve myself. Recent trail maintenance gave me ample drainage to choose from, which I appreciated for myself and for the water abatement on the trail.
I ran into a few more day hikers heading south shortly after my bio break. Another near miss. The elevation increased slightly and before I knew it, I was at little stony man overlook. I stood at the rocky edge and caught glimpses of what would have been a pretty incredible view through the fast moving fog. I was happy to not get completely shut out and the fog made for moody pictures, but I was sad to miss the layers that I could see for only a second at a time. Here’s a small collection of the many pictures I took:
I waited for a more consistent cloud shift while the wind whipped around me, but I finally had to keep moving or risk making my fingers and toes go numb. The way down consisted of loose rocks around a few switchbacks and then straight down to run alongside the road for awhile. The yellow leaves and overcast sky made it feel more like fall than the middle of August.
A group of about 10 backpackers sat scattered on the ground near the trail intersection for the Little Stony Man parking lot. They all stared at me as I made my way down the hill towards them. In an effort to break the awkward silence, I told them they were the most people I’d seen in three days. If I didn’t count the wayside detours, it was a true statement. I got a few distracted laughs, but not much else as I passed them. The rain had finally died down, so I attended to my phone while standing in the middle of the trail. My sister-in-law had texted me to ask if she could bring my nieces to meet at the parking lot where I will finish tomorrow. I agreed to a cheering section and extended an invite to my Dad and his wife, but the weekday timing didn’t work for them. I also fielded a few questions from another hiking friend about the Whites. It was quite the flurry of communication while I swatted gnats and occasionally made sure I wasn’t blocking anyone’s way.
Logistics swirled through my head as I made my way across the rubble strewn trail stopping for the occasional view. The rocks continued to wear me down, and I was so relieved every time got to a dirt stretch or even a less rubbly stretch.
I was not making good time this morning. I finally arrived at the Pinnacle picnic grounds around 12:30pm. A multi-generational family was having a very loud picture taking sesh as I walked through the parking lot towards a large covered pavilion. I was generally cranky from exhaustion and not in the mood for humanity, so I judged their squealing and posing.
I called Oakland while I prepped my lunch (yay, phone signal!) in the shade. The loud family left and the sun came out, so I moved to a different table to dry my raincoat and myself as much as I could. I should have also taken my shoes off, but I didn’t feel like putting on wet socks when it was time to leave. Exhaustion logic does not make for the soundest decisions.
An unused bear trap sat across the grounds behind a layer of caution tape. It was creepy, but I’m sure the park needs them to help relocate bears.
I stayed at lunch far too long and the low signal phone call drained my battery. I, too, was running low on juice, and I was in no mood to keep hiking. A person in a very packed 4 door car pulled up and took a guitar of the trunk. He then proceeded to play and sing under a tree. It was like I had been dropped into a Portlandia episode.
That was my cue to get moving. I plugged my phone into my brick — side rant: why apple decided to make the headphone jack and the charging port the same is beyond me. I can’t talk on the phone and charge it at the same time. who thought that would be a good design?? end rant — Then I walked over to the brick bathroom and made use of the facilities. I did not make eye contact with the guitar guy because I couldn’t be trusted to control my face. When I got back to the table, I decided to just hike with my phone plugged in rather than waiting for it to charge. I’d already been there for 75 minutes, and the still air made for an undesirable place to linger. I walked towards the bathrooms and followed the blazes parallel to the picnic driveway.
I eventually came to an intersection where there was an overlook parking lot to my right and a switchback to the left. I couldn’t tell if the trail would give me a good view, so I popped down to the parking lot and took a few pictures at Jewell Hollow Overlook. The trail ended up providing a similar vantage point, which I also took a second to admire before continuing down a sunny, overgrown stretch of trail.
The post rain weather was steamy and the shaded woods only provided mild relief from the heat of the sun. On the rocky walk towards the Pinnacle, I saw something green that reminded me of a swirly birthday candle. It turned out to be a caterpillar!
The loose rocks continued up and over the Pinnacle. Thankfully the views made up for some of the aggravation. Here’s a smattering of pictures from that stretch, one of which is a very hairy fly that I met at an overlook:
I made it to the Byrd’s nest hut sooner than I expected and took some time to look around. The shelter had a stone fireplace like the ones in the smokies and there were bear warnings posted all over the place.
I took a quick pee break and sat on the edge of an inoperable stone water fountain to eat a couple of bites from my clif bar. My overall pace continued to be slow, so I cut my break short and left around 3pm. The next stretch of trail vacillated between smooth sailing and the occasional rock pile.
I thought I smelled soap, but I didn’t see anyone so I figured I had imagined it. About 5 minutes later, I came upon two northbound day hikers sauntering up the trail playing music from a phone. It’s crazy how my nose can pick up smells out here. I scuffed my feet against the ground in the hopes that they would move on their own, but it didn’t work. I finally had to ask the one standing in the trail staring at his phone to move so I could squeeze past him. Almost immediately after that, I got lured off trail by this view resulting in me having to ask them to move a second time.
One of the hikers wore minimalist sandals (the kind that are basically a strip of rubber and rawhide straps). There were pointy, triangular rocks everywhere, and I was both amazed and belligerently jealous of his ability to hike in almost nothing. Meanwhile, I kept trying to take flat-ish steps and had consistent trouble finding comfortable purchase.
I took the blue blaze to Mary’s Rocks in the hopes that I would be rewarded with a better view than this morning’s fog. The side trail continued to be a rock fest, but it was worth the fuss.
On the way up, I passed a departing family with a golden retriever on leash. The dad asked me how it was going, and I replied, “slowly.” When I got to the rocks, I was dismayed to find a large part of the view obscured by rolling fog (including today’s top picture). I dropped my pack and checked my watch for the 50th time. The humidity must be slowing me down more than I realize. I tried not to beat myself up about it, but I also really wanted to get to camp before it rained. I stuck around for a few minutes taking variations of the same picture until I was satisfied that I had seen what could be seen for the moment.
The soapy day hikers arrived as I was putting my pack on. I wished them well and slowly made my way back down the rocky path to the AT. There were a few switchbacks down the mountain, but for the most part it was a reasonably graded straight shot down an interminable scattering of loose rocks and periodic picture window views.
I saw a cute pittie mix whose owner pulled off into a drainage ditch to let me pass. My body and my heart continued to drag, and I was far too hungry for the number of miles I had left, so I decided to put on Harry Potter and take an actual snack break. A young couple with two lab mixes passed while I sat on my snack rock. The dogs were galumphing idiots, and the younger of the two stepped on my bad foot in such a way where I had to move quickly to avoid getting hurt. One of the hikers asked how long I was doing the trail, and I said I was one day short of being done with the entire thing. It felt pretty incredible to make that proclamation. She congratulated me and off they went with their dopey troupe. When they were out of sight, I took another quick pee break and continued down the endless hill feeling overwhelmed by the 1.4 miles between me and the bottom.
A text buzzed in my chest pocket as I neared a set of power lines. It was Oakland asking for a phone call. I had to backtrack several yards because my signal dropped sharply and there was no way I could stand in the sun for any length of time. It was so nice to hear her voice, but I had very little phone battery, there was nowhere to rest my hamburger feet, and all I could think about was how still had at least 45 minutes to go at 5pm. I lasted about 3 minutes on the call before I had to go or risk complete meltdown. Oakland was kind about my abrupt departure and encouraged me to keep moving. I eventually made it to a set of log steps and an easier stretch of trail.
I passed a side trail for a parking lot and neared the large road that I had been hearing for quite some time. Just before the road, I heard a rustle and spotted a doe in a sea of green (yes, my phone is clogged with hundreds of deer pictures. you’re welcome).
The road crossing at VA 211 wasn’t as tricky as I’d feared given the number of lanes, and I ducked back into the woods for the home stretch.
The AT veered left at a fire road that I then proceeded to cross twice, which felt silly, but I suppose it was prettier than just walking up the road the entire time. Jury’s out on that one, but I enjoyed the intensely green tunnel minus the narrowness caused by overgrowth (not really captured in this set of photos).
There are so many deer around here that I couldn’t help but worry about ticks with every brush of a leaf. I paused to admire a tree that had been hit by lightning and went up a gradual rise that flattened out before it ever became much of a hill.
I felt like I would never reach the shelter turn off and that familiar frantic edge gave me tunnel vision. As much as I wanted the day to end, I also didn’t want to rush my last evening of the hike. I forced myself to stop checking the mileage every five minutes and look around at the softly lit ferns.
It was hard to imagine being done done. Finishing the trail has been my anchor and my achilles heel for nearly three years. I’m sure there will be other backpacking trips, but this would be the last time I hiked through the evening light to the sound of birds feeling exhausted and dirty and sweaty and starving and on my way to the end.
I finally spied the concrete pillar marking the blue blaze shelter trail. I took a right turn and followed a loooong 0.2 mile path with gentle footing.
I rounded the corner and crossed that same fire road to find a gaggle of dude bros at the shelter picnic table. My heart simultaneously jumped for joy at company and sank at the number of shirtless bros in front of me. In an effort to not shrink, I walked past them and said that it had been a long 0.2 miles from the AT. One of them agreed. I dumped my pack and asked about tenting space. Then I pulled out my food bag, stove, fuel, and water supplies. I didn’t want to carry all of my dinner necessities to the tenting area only to lug them back.
I sat on a rock wall that jutted past the edge of the shelter and ate half a pay day bar while taking secret photos of my companions and their messy gear. One them asked about my hike, so I gave them the nutshell version while fiddling with my gps to send my last location ping.
The guys turned out to be approachable bros, and I settled into making fun of them (nicely) while maintaining my “don’t shrink” mentality. It worked well enough. Who knows what they thought of me as I roamed in and out of their conversation, but the assertiveness kept me from feeling like the oddball out.
After my snack, I went down the side path to pitch my tent. Another hiker sat in his tent, and I mistakenly assumed he was with the table bros. I deliberated over which site to choose, eyeing the widow makers all over the place. I finally settled on a lumpy patch of grass with a smattering of rocks and roots. I cleared a few rocks, staked out the corners of my tent and then the peaks. Thunder rolled in the distance as I pulled the last guy line taut. I stowed my pack inside and went to get water before the sky opened up. The piped spring was cold and ran right behind the shelter. A winning combo that called for a celebratory face wash. I also dumped some of the cool water over my head for maximum enjoyment. I went back to shelter feeling slightly less grubby. Side note: I don’t like being the only female-bodied person in a group of cis men because chances are high they’re all inspecting some aspect of my body even if they’re indifferent to my masculine presentation.
I sat on the rock wall that I had begun to think of as mine and realized that I couldn’t boil water because I’d left my bowl in my pack. Classic checklist blunder. I laughed at myself as I took the short (and flat) trip back to my tent. Then I cooked ramen and interjected in the bro convo when it seemed amusing or relevant to do so. They’re all from the Michigan/Detroit area and they’re hiking SNP together. One of their friends is really struggling, so I gave them some terrain info for their southbound miles tomorrow.
I ate pepper jack cheese and peanut butter while I waited for my ramen to drop below lava temperature. One of the bros was a SOBO thru hiker who quit when he got engaged. Another bro was really into running, which gave me the opportunity to humble brag about having run 7 marathons. Sometimes you have to meet bro with bro. After downing my ramen, I ate a mini snickers and a few m&ms. Then the usual hygiene routine, which I managed to finish right as it started to drizzle. I put my food bag and toiletries in the bear box (yay!) and said goodnight to bro town on my way past the shelter. The rain drops fell faster as I got to the tenting area. The hiker who I had mistaken as part of the larger group asked me about my thru hike because he had noticed my AT hang tag. I got a distinct “family” vibe from him, but I never could suss out if he was actually gay. He said he was out for a few days to get a dose of nature and take some time away from his kids. He congratulated me on the end of my hike, and I shared my previously unspoken apprehension about something terrible happening tomorrow. I lost my 2017 hike in a second, and I still have 15 more miles to hike. He didn’t try to talk me down from the ledge, which I appreciated. Instead, he said he was happy for me no matter what happened.
The rain kicked up a notch, so I got in my tent and recorded the sound for myself and to share with Oakland. Then I set up my bed with a mixture of relief and sadness. I wouldn’t have to blow up an air mattress tomorrow night, but I also wouldn’t be sleeping in the middle of the woods. The rain tailed off, so I got out and rolled my tent doors open. It was far too stuffy to leave them closed. I’m sad I didn’t take a picture of my last campsite, but I don’t know that it would looked all that memorable. Two more hikers arrived as I climbed back inside my tent. One of them had fallen on the rocks and cut his forehead enough to warrant a bandaid. I wondered if he was the struggling dude bro friend, but I didn’t ask him any follow up questions. Instead, I took a short trip away from the tents to pee behind a large tree. When I got back, the new arrivals asked me about my tent, and I warned them that I would be getting up pretty early, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. I covertly changed my clothes, took another recording to capture the frog symphony, and settled in to write my infernal notes. A barred owl called as I tapped on my tiny screen. I’m finishing this to the occasional clap of distant thunder, the industrious frogs, another round of rain plinking against the tent, the squeaking of a sleeping pad as someone shifts, and a passing plane (always with the planes!). Last night in the tent…
Mile 929.7 to mile 945.0 (15.3) – Pass Mountain Hut
Checklist total miles: 1166.1
Creature feature: two bears, so many deer, the caterpillar, butterflies, Athena the wonder muppet, day hiking dopey dogs, and GNATS. Bugs were bad today and in my eyes constantly.