14.2 miles, 704.3 overall (Stealth camp short of Catawba Mountain shelter)
It is another cold night. I end up zipping the bag all the way up again. I have the alarm on my watch set for 6:45 but when it goes off I only hear a few beeps. It stops beeping before I push any buttons. Being half asleep I don’t really take notice and roll over. 30 minutes later I wake up and force myself to start packing. By 8:00 I am packed up and eating breakfast when Jersey hikes by on his way out, followed only a few minutes later by Chef. At least I beat Kicker and Treecycler, I think to myself as I get going at 8:30.
It should be a pretty easy day. My goal is to get to Homeplace by 4:00 for dinner. After that I plan to do a simple 2 miles more to a shelter. That will put me within a couple miles of McAfee’s Knob where I plan to be for sunrise tomorrow.
The day starts with an uphill to Dragon’s Tooth. I’m excited to get there because it is another milestone from my memory. I first hiked to Dragon’s Tooth in college with some friends but haven’t been back in years. The uphill isn’t terrible but it is followed by a ridgewalk that has lots of rocks. On the way up I pass Jersey and Chef. Neither are fans of either uphills or rocks, especially Chef who has a heavy pack and a bad foot. Along the ridge line I also pass Treecycler and Kicker who have stopped for a snack. It seems I didn’t get out of camp before them after all.
When I do get to Dragon’s Tooth it is bigger than I remember. It consists of two giant rocks protruding from the ground. They are, if my geology serves me correctly, sedimentary rock formations thrust upward by geologic forces. I climb up the second one to take in the gorgeous view that I know is waiting for me. While there I snack on some gorp and take advantage of the cell service to get caught up on things. Treecycler and Kicker come by but neither ventures to climb up the rock after me.
I leave after about 30 minutes and head down the northern side which I know from my past visits is more of a hand-over-foot affair, at least for a little while. On the way down I think about how much Chef is going to be cursing it on his way down, but before long I’m able to experience it first-hand. Chef and Jersey skipped the 0.1 mile side trail and got ahead of me. I pass them again, for good this time, and pass Treecycler and Kicker again soon after.
The trail meanders downhill to a road crossing where there is a convenience store 0.4 miles to the left. I go ahead and head there, first because I need to use the restroom and second because I could use some snacks. The place is similar to but nicer than Trent’s Grocery in all respects: cleanliness, service, and prices. I take advantage of the restroom and then purchase a couple honey buns, a Gatorade, a pen (I’ve lost my pencil and they only have a pack of 10), some pepperoni and a hot dog. The hot dog is for immediate consumption, the rest enter my pack.
On the way back to the trail I run into Diesel. He has left Big Sky and Medicine Man behind to hike bigger miles. Apparently he got to the shelter I was at last night at 9:45 and left at 10 this morning – I wasn’t the last out after all! He plans to go to a nearby hostel that Chef and Jersey are heading to as well that gives free shuttles to Homeplace for dinner. I like the idea of the shuttle but the hostel is 6 miles behind where I want to get to today in order to set myself up for sunrise tomorrow. He continues on to the store and I tell him I’ll see him at Homeplace. At the trailhead I run into Treecycler and Kicker yet again. They aren’t sure whether they can do the miles to Homeplace in time to eat at 4:00. I give them some words of encouragement but then hike ahead of them.
The trail from here is easy – some pasture walking and a small uphill, then down the rest of the way to the road crossing. I cover it by 3, arriving at the parking lot with enough time to try to catch a ride for the 1.4 miles off trail to the restaurant. My first attempt is with some college-age kids but they are just arriving, not leaving. They do however offer me a beer which I accept and I talk to them for a few minutes. Once they leave though I make my first mistake. Instead of striking up a conversation with the other people who are around I sit down to call the hotel in Daleville to make a reservation for tomorrow night. In the time it takes to make the reservation the several groups of people pull away in their cars. Oops.
My next opportunity comes when a pair of hikers leave the trail. I put on a miserable “I don’t know where I am heading” look, but they move quickly by me and get in their car without a word. The worst part is when they leave they turn in the direction I wanted to go. Finally I work up the nerve to strike up a conversation with the next group that comes off the trail. I ask them whether it is safe to walk up the road. They respond that they don’t know, they aren’t from nearby. As they are leaving the parking lot they do offer me a ride but in the wrong direction, which doesn’t help. It is 3:30 now and I need to be at the restaurant at 4. I decide to hoof it.
The road isn’t too bad. In fact while I was in the parking lot a cyclist rode by so I know there is at least a passable shoulder. It is mostly downhill too so I cover the ground quickly and I’m at the Homeplace on-time.
As I’m arriving I notice the flood of cars also arriving. The dinner rush has already begun and, as it turns out, they opened early. In fact while looking around I run into a group of hikers who have already finished eating. I hang out with Sipsey, Catfish, and one other hiker while I wait for the hostel contingent to arrive so I can eat with them. As it turns out Sipsey et al want to stay at the hostel. We give the owner a call and are able to secure a shuttle for them. I also suggest that he bring the hikers at the hostel along since the restaurant is already so busy with VT grads and their families.
As we are waiting Treecycler and Kicker arrive. As it turns out they were able to cover the miles and found a place to stay at the nearby grocery store. When Joe, the hostel owner, arrives he brings 5 hikers, giving us a party of 8 to eat. I also ask Joe if he would mind driving me back to the trailhead when he returns to pick up the others. He kindly agrees and I am able to stow my gear in his truck while I eat.
Dinner is a long time coming – the wait is over an hour – but it is worth it. We order 3 meats: fried chicken, ham, and roast beef. It comes with sides: green beans, mac and cheese, beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits with apple butter, coleslaw, and probably other stuff that I’ve forgotten. The food keeps coming as long as we can eat it. I am able to clear a little over 2 plates’ worth by myself. We joke about our eating abilities and how the restaurant put us in a back corner, supposedly to keep the stench away from the other guests.
After dinner we pay the bill and call Joe to come get us. I am anxious to get my additional 2 miles in and get to sleep. When he arrives though my pack isn’t in the back. When I ask about it he quips “Oh, do you need that?” At first I wonder if this is a ploy to keep me at the hostel for the night, but I quickly realize what happened – Sipsey et al didn’t know my plans and simply took all the packs out of the truck. Luckily Joe has brought Big Sky and Medicine Man to eat after they arrived late at the hostel. I plan to return to the hostel now, retrieve my pack, and come back when he picks them up from the restaurant.
Unfortunately because of the still long wait at the restaurant for the late arrivals this means hanging out at the hostel for over 2 hours. I will have to do the last couple miles in the dark tonight. Such is the price it seems I must pay to a) eat at Homeplace, b) see the sunrise at McAfee’s Knob, and c) set myself up for arriving in Daleville tomorrow. I hang out for a while in the hostel. It is a 3 bay garage that has been converted into a hangout with couches, tables, etc. For sleeping it has cots and Red Cross blood donation beds. For some reason Chef, who hated Woods Hole, loves it. I personally am glad I won’t be sleeping here. I do get to meet Sweet and Low, the diabetic duo. They are zeroing here waiting for a new insulin pump for Low after his broke. I have been trailing them for some time and am happy I finally get to meet them, and that they are at least as cool as I imagined them to be. Eventually I go outside to wait by the truck so Joe doesn’t forget me when he heads back.
The sun sets and still Joe hasn’t left. I will be doing some night hiking tonight. I am starting to get really frustrated with my situation when Joe arrives with Medicine Man and Big Sky. Apparently I had not covered the contingency in which Joe has two trucks! He had fallen asleep and when the two hikers called from Homeplace he had forgotten about me. He does, however, drive me back to the trail as promised. While he seems to be a bit forgetful I can’t be mad at him as he apologizes several times during the 5 minute drive for forgetting me and we have some good conversation on the way. While I’m glad I’m not staying at his hostel I definitely like the guy.
On the way into the woods I meet 3 friends who are coming out to hike for the weekend and arrived late. For two of them it is their first backpacking trip. They had contemplated going a short way into the woods to camp but found no spots. They plan to sleep in their cars tonight. I invite them to come with me but they quickly decline. I will be hiking alone. I set a fast pace so I can get to sleep soon. It is already 10 and I’ll need to be up around 4:30. I cover the first mile to the first shelter quickly. It looks like the trail passes the shelter so I walk by as quietly as possible but soon run into the shelter’s privy. Odd, I think, privies are never right on the trail. I backtrack to the shelter. While looking around for a blaze a dog in the shelter barks and starts to growl at me. I feel bad for most likely waking the other hikers, especially when a minute later I realize that the trail was up above the shelter and I never needed to be down there. As I hike I contemplate where to camp. Even if the next shelter has camping sites I probably can’t set up without waking someone. I start looking for spots along the trail. Just a bit before the shelter I find a mostly level spot. It isn’t an established camping spot, but it is large enough and flat enough for me to put my tent and get some shut-eye. I contemplate cowboy camping but decide this isn’t the time. I quickly set up and am even able to find a tree for a quick bear line. By 11:20 I am in my tent and trying to fall asleep so I can be up in 5 hours for the sunrise over McAfee’s Knob on the Appalachian Trail!