21.5 miles, 437.8 overall (Campsite past Vandeventer shelter)
TW and I are both early risers. I am up minutes before her but we are both ready and hike out together around 8:45. The first few miles she takes it slow to test her hamstring so we hike together. The trail is incredibly neat as it passes between huge rock formations and follows Laurel Branch. It crosses the river a few times on large footbridges before we eventually climb away from the river. However we don’t stray for long as the trail descends to reveal Laurel Falls, perhaps the most impressive waterfall yet on the AT.
A few miles in the trail turns away from Hampton and I am lucky we are hiking together because I nearly take the side trail to town. We stop for a snack and I test the cell service. When I find a good signal I pause to upload pictures and blog entries. TW takes advantage of my break just before a big climb to get a head start on me. I end up giving her a 30 minute head start, practically guaranteeing that I won’t catch her until much later.
This climb stands out for 2 reasons. First, it is a huge climb up the mountain followed immediately by a huge descent down the mountain on the other side. This is what hikers like to call a PUD, a pointless up-down. The south is full of them, where the trail seems to want to take us to every measly summit for no apparent reason. The second reason it stands out is because it is the first of 2 climbs today, after which the trail will be almost flat to Damascus. It seems that the heavenly trails of Virginia actually start just south of the border.
The climb up is long, taking a little over 2 trail miles. The descent is just as long. At no point is it revealed to us why the mountain is called Pond Mountain. There was no pond at either the top or the bottom, although at the end of the descent the trail does meet Watauga Lake. On the way down I run into Granbob who is slack packing today back to Black Bear. His knee has been giving him trouble so he wants to try it out with less gear. He informs me that there is trail magic being set up at the bottom. I wonder if Trophy Wife will miss it again.
At the bottom there is a road crossing followed by a recreational area on the lake that is an ideal place for some trail magic. Castor thru-hiked in 2010 and this is his first time back to the trail. He has brought 2 friends to help him administer his magic: donuts, cookies, chicken and meat grilled with BBQ sauce, ham, and other goodies. TW is still there when I arrive although she quickly moves on. Brett (who now goes by Biscuits) is also there and has been eating for almost an hour. I partake in a couple donuts, some meat, and a bit of ham but I don’t want to stay too long. I move on with Biscuits and we hike the next few miles together as they wind around the lake.
At the end of the lake I cross Watauga Dam, but it is hardly impressive after Fontana. In fact this dam is more just a pile of rubble than an actual dam. As I am walking along the road to the dam I see TW crossing it. She looks like she is having some difficulty and it isn’t until I start to cross that I realize what it is. There is some bad weather moving in and the wind has picked up. Once I leave the shelter of the trees and the mountainside I am buffeted from the side as I walk across the dam. On the other side TW has stopped to put her pack cover on, but I continue on hoping the weather will pass us by.
The second big climb of the day comes on the other side of the dam. As I start up I can see the rain clouds to the west and feel the wind pushing them in my direction. I keep an eye on them but halfway up the mountain I come to a west-facing overlook and when I stop to take in the view all I can see is the oncoming haze of rain. I duck back behind the ridge and throw on my jacket and pack cover. Just as I finish I begin to feel the rain as the wind blows it in horizontally. I start hiking but the downpour never starts and my rain jacket is hot. I’m forced to take it off again and as I do TW catches me. We hike together as the rain passes through, never getting strong enough to make me want my jacket again. When we reach a spring we stop for water since the next shelter is lacking.
Miles catches us at the spring. He is one of the hikers that stayed at Black Bear with us. He is what is called an ultralighter, someone who has an incredibly light backpack. In fact Miles’ base weight (weight without food and water) is somewhere around 8 pounds and his total pack weight (with food and water) is about 13 pounds. He accomplishes this in part by buying lightweight gear, partly by carrying fewer things than other people, and finally by eating hardly anything. His food bag has only Nature’s Valley granola bars, pop tarts, Snickers bars, and Jolly Ranchers. Miles is the antithesis of Animal, the hiker who bought a month’s worth of food at a time, but is yet another example of hiking your own hike.
Miles moves on and gets to the next shelter before we do. When we arrive he tries to convince us to stay there for the night. However we (myself, TW, and Biscuits) have our eyes set on a campsite almost 4 miles further. We convince Miles to pack up all his gear and follow us.
Now, apparently somewhere in convincing Miles to follow us TW said Miles could sleep in her tent. One of the ways Miles is saving weight is by sleeping in shelters and thus not carrying a tent. When we get to the campsite TW realizes Miles wasn’t kidding about sharing the tent. However we all have 1-person tents which would make sharing quite cozy. With rain on the way though Miles needs a place to sleep. Just when we have decided that Miles will share Biscuits’ tent TP arrives. TP had gotten to Kincora yesterday in the snow, stayed the night there, and has caught up to us today. He has a 1.5 person tent (we joke about what the 0.5 person could mean) and Miles ends up sleeping there. It all works out in the end, with TP and Miles both saying in the morning that they got a great night’s sleep.
Tomorrow we plan another long day but it will be over very easy terrain, setting up a short day into Damascus the day after. Then we all plan on taking zeroes on the Appalachian Trail.