24.0 miles, 589.2 overall (Helveys Mill shelter)
This morning is even worse when I wake up. I don’t want to get up and moving. I know a long day lies ahead and I’m not excited about it. Without a reward at the end or some sort of challenge to spur me on the mileage is simply work. I sit up and just sit there for a few minutes, summoning the will power to get going. Eventually I get up and since there are only 3 people in the shelter and one is already up and moving I am able to get packed quickly. I am out the door at 8:00.
The early start may be critical. Since I am low on water I want to conserve it and hiking during the cooler mornings should help. The trail this morning is essentially a ridge walk to the next shelter with a gap thrown in for fun. Although I make good time to the gap I am not enjoying myself today and my energy is really low. I need a snack earlier than usual, and I spend most of my time contemplating my water situation. Part of my displeasure is surely the internal berating I’m giving myself for being in this situation. Hikers have so few things to worry about and so much time to think about them, both before and after they are done, that any mistake is magnified by the opportunities we had to avoid it and the time we have to dwell on it.
Six miles in I reach a road. There is a sign there from a local church that is offering to feed, clean, and house hikers for free. I have heard of this place before, reading about it in the trail journal of a hiker who is ahead of me. They are generous and apparently very nice people and I consider taking them up on the offer. However it is 10:00, way too early to stop hiking, and their hospitality will not fix the predicament I am in. I decide to hike on. As soon as I do, not 100 yards past the road, is trail magic from the church. And what do you think it is? Water! Jugs and jugs of water. They also left some snacks, but they have been picked through and all that is left are 2 packages of ramen. I take one, knowing that I am one breakfast short, and I fill every container I have full with water. It will make for a heavy pack, but this is the price I pay for my mistake.
After filling up I feel much better. As I said before, the trail will provide. I’m still anxious about the next couple days, but today I should be ok at least to the shelter. I continue on the 4 miles to the next shelter. Although my spirits are somewhat up now my energy level is not and the time drags. Once I reach the shelter I have two snacks instead of one to try to pick myself up. I also lounge for about 40 minutes, putting off the 15 miles I have left. Head-n-out and Tagalong arrive during this time and he is also feeling down today. I wonder if the heat from the previous day is part of the explanation.
Once I finally get moving again I feel better pretty soon. There is a climb out of the shelter and I am just starting to zone out when I notice a big black snake right in the middle of the trail. I get a couple pictures and then tap my poles near him to convince him to move on. He is harmless but as he slithers away I give him a wide berth out of courtesy. Pretty soon I am back in the zone. The climb complete, the trail follows an old logging road along another ridge line. I am thinking about something unimportant when I notice a weird sound coming from the side of the trail where I just passed by. I stop and turn around, trying to find the source. When I do I almost jump from surprise. About two feet off the side of the trail is a timber rattler! As I had walked by he was shaking his rattle at me. My earlier sighting of the snake in the trail comforts me that if this fella were in the trail I would have spotted him in time. Being two feet off the trail he is camouflaged and I don’t feel too bad for missing him. I do take some pictures from a safe distance and keep an eye on him as I hike back a little way to try to leave a message in the trail for any hikers who might come by sometime soon. The ground is rocky though and I don’t have much luck. It doesn’t matter anyway because as I am doing this the snake slithers off into the woods.
The next few miles I am back to contemplating my water situation. I don’t think there will be many people at the shelter I am targeting tonight. Most of those who are ahead of me seem to be far enough ahead that they could push on, and those who stayed with me last night don’t plan to do 24 miles. Anybody behind me is not very likely to do over 24 miles. I decide that when I arrive I will make a fire and boil some water. I have a 700 ml pot so I can get a day’s worth of water in just a few boils and that won’t take too long. As I’m hiking though another possibility comes to mind. Just before the shelter is a road that goes to the town of Bland. In that town is a Subway. I could hitch into town, get a foot long sub for dinner, fill my water while I’m there, and then hitch back and still get to camp at a reasonable hour. It is only 3:30 and I can be at the road by 5:00, just in time to catch any “rush hour” traffic. The only risk is if I didn’t get a hitch back to the road crossing in time, in which case there is a hotel in town. It is somewhat expensive as hiker lodging goes but it wouldn’t be the worst outcome.
Fueled by my new plan and the excitement of a Subway foot long I pick up the pace, hiking better than I have all day. I do less rationing of my water, knowing that I have enough to reach my goal where more water waits. I get all the way to the road and suddenly my plans change. There is trail magic there and although there is no water there is something incredibly cool about this trail magic. It was left by Rusty Bumper, one of the hikers whose trail journal I followed last year! I used his journal to help plan my hike, noting his gear, some of his hiking tips, and his mileages. He has left a cornucopia of snack crackers, Snickers bars, and other goodies in one cooler and ice cold Coca-Cola’s (not the generic junk) in the other. I chug down a coke and take a pack of peanut butter crackers while I contemplate what to do. I should note here briefly (in case he reads this) that Rusty Bumper’s trail magic was at a perfect location. It was on the trail off of a dirt road that the trail follows to the state road, which the trail also follows in order to cross I-77. This means that there were no large uphills for at least a mile, probably more, giving sufficient time to digest the soda. Too often I find sodas just before a climb and, while I still gratefully drink them, the result is an uncomfortable several minutes of hiking.
So, while I sip on the soda I ponder what to do. I am only 2 miles away from the shelter and I have enough food for the next few days. It is early so I could still make that fire I was thinking about. Also, if there are any hikers at the shelter, I might be able to borrow something from them to treat my water. I decide to forego the Subway, saving myself the need to perform my first hitch. I cross the interstate and re-enter the woods. Immediately I wonder if I have made the right decision.
It only takes a few minutes to get to the shelter. When I do I find a bunch of other hikers. EMT is here – I haven’t seen him since Hiawassee. Dog Whisperer (DW) is here – I thought he would have hiked further today. There are also 2 hikers I met in Damascus whose names I don’t remember, a northbound couple and a southbound couple. It turns out the southbound couple has a cat and EMT is trying to take pictures of it while it lurks around the shelter. He says his camera has a “cat mode” and he wants to try it out.
While I am setting up my tent I mention to DW that I plan to boil some water. He offers me the use of his water filter and I gratefully accept. The water source is far away (a steep 0.3 mile side trail) but this will allow me to get water for tonight and enough for tomorrow. I also bring back some for him. Once again the trail has provided.
While I cook dinner I talk with the other hikers, none of whom I have had an opportunity to spend much time with. EMT turns out to be a fun guy to talk to and I get a kick out of it when he mentions his girlfriend goes to Virginia Tech and then has an “aha” moment when I point to my hat which he obviously hasn’t noticed. He asks my age and when I tell him he says I look younger. I take off my hat and seeing the lack of hair he rescinds his comment, giving us another good laugh. At one point discussion turns to Provisions and his antics. It seems everyone has a story related to him to tell. We enjoy telling our experiences to the southbounders who have yet to meet him.
Eventually I sneak off to my tent to perform my usual ritual of baby wipe shower, preparing clothes for the next day, checking for ticks, and writing another blog entry. I feel much better about my water and suspect I can make it to the hostel now without needing any more assistance. Tomorrow I can get lunch at a grocery place just off the trail and refill there. If I hike only a few miles more after that and camp I will be about a half day’s hike from the hostel. It seems my saying still holds, maybe more now than before – the trail will provide. I’m looking forward to finding out what it provides tomorrow when I continue north on the Appalachian Trail.